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9 myths about Hinduism — debunked
An Indian artist dresses as Kali, the goddess of destruction, at a festival in Allahabad earlier this month.
April 25th, 2014
09:00 AM ET

9 myths about Hinduism — debunked

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) - Caste. Cows. Karma.

Suhag Shukla knows that’s how some people outside Hinduism see her religion. As the head of the Hindu American Foundation, Shukla, 42, clarifies misconceptions all the time.

Hinduism is ancient, though there is no specific date for when it was formed. The name is a Sanskrit word; Hinduism and Hindu were coined by invaders who used the terms to refer to the people they encountered when they crossed the Hindu Kush mountains and arrived at the Indus River.

Hotel Death: It's a place of celebration and salvation for souls

In America, Hinduism’s profile was elevated by Indian immigrants who brought their customs and rituals with them and perhaps most recently, by the growing popularity of Hindu teachings like yoga and meditation.

Hinduism is the world’s oldest living religion and the third largest – behind Christianity and Islam – with more than 1 billion followers. Some argue that Hinduism is more a way of life than religion. It has no common creed or church. Nor is it based on the teachings of a founder or holy book.

And it remains a mystery for many.

Myth No. 1: There are 330 million Hindu gods.

Reality: There is one supreme God that cannot be fully known or understood.
Hindus are encouraged to relate to God in the way that suits them best, like worshipping many deities who are believed to be manifestations of God. The trimurti or three main deities are Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer. That’s why Hinduism is often thought of as polytheistic. It is not.

But there’s debate on the proper terminology for Hinduism. Some call it a monistic religion, derived from the belief that everything in the universe is part of one substance or nature. Some, including Shukla, say Hindusim is henotheistic, which is the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods. Others, say it is monotheistic.

Myth No. 2: Hindus are idol worshippers.

Reality: Hindus worship a reminder of God.

No Hindu will say he or she is worshipping an idol. Instead, Hindus believe a physical representation of God – in the form of an idol - helps them focus on an aspect of prayer or meditation. For instance, a person who has just opened up a new business may worship Ganesh, the elephant god who represents success.

Myth No. 3: Hindus worship cows.

Reality: Hindus do not pray to cows but they do regard all creation and all life as sacred.

Hindus believe every living thing has a soul. It is true, however, that cows hold a special place in Hindu society. That’s why Hindus refrain from eating beef. Cows are seen as gentle, maternal figures that are providers of milk and other forms of sustenance. They are honored for their value.

Myth No. 4: All Hindus are vegetarians.

Reality: A majority of Hindus eat meat.

But about 30 percent do not. That stems from a fundamental belief in ahimsa, the principle of non-violence. Since all living things are manifestations of God, violence against them is considered contrary to the natural balance of the universe.

Myth No. 5: Hinduism supports a discriminatory caste system.

Reality: Caste discrimination is rooted not in religion but culture.

Caste was an ancient system of occupational class delineated in Hindu texts that over the years developed into a rigid social hierarchy. The lowest castes, or untouchables, were marginalized and faced persecution. But many modern Hindus have argued that caste-based discrimination is not intrinsic to Hinduism and should not be thought of as religiously sanctioned.

Myth No. 6: Women are subservient in Hinduism.

Reality: Not because of religion.

Actually, one attribute that differentiates Hinduism from say, Christianity or Islam, is that it recognizes forms of god as feminine. Hindus revere Shakti, or the personification of God's energy through a female figure.

Some of the most commonly worshipped goddesses are Parvati, a primary form of Shakti; Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom; and Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity.

Women in India may not be equal with men but again, that is not because of religion but culture and people using religion to keep women down. This is akin, perhaps, to Islamic societies forcing women to cover up from head to toe.

“I don’t think there is a basis to disregard women in our religion,” Shukla says. “The Vedas (scripture) don’t give those instructions.”

Myth No. 7: Hindu women wearing ‘red dots’ on their foreheads are married.

Reality: Sometimes.

A red dot was once a symbol of marriage for Hindu women. Today, the dot, or bindi, is largely decorative. Girls and women – married and single - wear bindis of all colors as fashion statements. A tilak, also a mark on the forehead, has religious significance. It's generally made with sandalwood paste, ashes or red turmeric and can be in the form of lines or a dot.

Myth No. 8: The Bhagavad Gita is like the Bible.

Reality: There is not one central, authoritative book in Hinduism.

But Hinduism is rich in scripture with a vast collection of ancient religious writings. Hindus believe god revealed truths to wise men who passed them on for thousands of years through a rich oral tradition. The scriptures include the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas and the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of God.

Part of the epic tale, Mahabharata, the 700-verse Gita is the world’s longest poem and takes the form of a dialog on a battlefield between a prince, Arjuna, and Krishna. It captures the core beliefs of Hinduism but not all Hindus read the Gita.

Myth No. 9: Karma is fatalistic.

Reality: Everyone has the ability to choose life’s actions.

This is the theory behind karma: for every action a person sets in motion, there is a corresponding reaction. Hindus believe they have to face the consequences of past actions. Each person creates his or her destiny with deeds. The ultimate goal is to have karma that will free a soul and gain moksha, or liberation from the cycle of rebirth.

Sources: Hindu-American Foundation, Hinduism Today and Vasudha Narayanan, associate editor of Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism

- Moni Basu

Filed under: Asia • Hinduism • India

soundoff (195 Responses)
  1. dandydillmore

    >> If you do not, find a version of truth that suits you.

    Surely, you cannot be serious with this comment??
    Do you see any irony in your comment?

    June 23, 2014 at 1:18 pm |
  2. dandydillmore

    I'm thinking Smurf !! Anyone else??

    June 23, 2014 at 1:12 pm |
  3. mverma

    Most people are trying to understand God intellectually. According to Hinduism, there is One God ("Advaita" is the sanskrit word used, which means "That which can not be two", in order to emphasize the point that God is like an infinite ocean which can not be divided). There is one God who is present in all the forms of this world – all humans, animals, trees etc.. But, since God is not an object of senses (can bot be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted), it was deemed hard for common people to grasp God's essence. This is why different forms were created with the goal of having common people starting with the form, but ultimately realizing God within oneself. Most serious seekers of God are not described worshipping idols in the scriptures, They are described as meditating in a forest or mountains alone without any idol. What this article does not address, is that in order to realize God within, Hinduism acknowledges the role of a teacher (Guru) who has realized God within. Every Hindu worship starts with a shloka that says – Guru is the trinity (Brahma Vishnu Mahesh). This is another issue Westerners have with Hinduism. So many Gurus have come to the west and not been understood, even condemned for being Godmen. Hinduism realizes that God does not send prophets once in a millenia. God is ALWAYS PRESENT on earth. Anyone who becomes free from mind, Karma, can fully embody God consciousness and becomes a Guru (equivalent of a prophet). So in reality Hinduism is totally democratic, in that an individual has total freedom to choose his/her deity or no deity. Or choose a Guru who can provide guidance to fully realize God. The whole emphasis is on PERSONALLY EXPERIENCING GOD within, not believing from a text or hearing someone interpret a text. Not many Hindus understand this distinction, so how can they explain it to their children or anyone else in the west??

    June 14, 2014 at 4:37 am |
    • sharpenu

      Not many Hindus, like yourself, realize that there is NO God in Hindu Dharma. Advaita means non-dual and there is nothing one can say about that! Divaita is necessary to reach Advaita.

      June 14, 2014 at 9:51 am |
    • pmpraf

      Over the past few decades or so , Time spent on OTHER DISTRACTIONS LIKE TV, INTERNET MADE US forget many things . It is really time for us and our children to REFRESH OUR KNOWLEDGE ON UNDERSTAND DHARMA. Here is a good start.

      http://forumforhinduawakening.org/.

      NOW BOTH MONI BASU AND SUHAG SHUKLA SHOULD START ATTENDING CLASSES.

      June 22, 2014 at 10:38 am |
  4. basehitter

    The article says Hinduism is monotheistic then lists assorted gods that Hindus pray to. Reminds me of Christianity. They have the father, the son, Holy Spirit, satan, all sorts of angels and demons,,even saints who perform miracles from the grave.

    June 8, 2014 at 7:47 am |
    • sharpenu

      Many Hindus are very confused. There is really no "theism" in Hindu Dharma. "Theos" is "God" a male, creator Being. Hindus become their own worst enemy when they misuse the Monotheistic terms.

      June 8, 2014 at 8:49 am |
      • dandydillmore

        I think you could expand that thought. Many devout followers of religion are confused.

        June 23, 2014 at 1:15 pm |
        • sharpenu

          As a Hindu, I would only be qualified to dialogue about the Hindu/Yogic Dharma. Religion is a very important part of lives even indirectly. It would seem wise for us to enter into mature dialogues about this very important area of our live.

          June 24, 2014 at 8:44 am |
    • mverma

      This only confuses someone who tries to understand God intellectually. According to Hinduism, there is One God (Advaita is the sanskrit word which means That which can not be two, in order to emphasize the point that God is like an infinite ocean which can not be divided). There is one God who is present in all the forms of this world – all humans, animals, trees etc.. So, since God can bot be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted with our senses, it was deemed hard for common people to grasp it. This is why different forms were created with the goal of starting with the form, but ultimately realizing God within oneself. What this article does not address, is that in order to realize God within, Hinduism acknowledges the role of a teacher (Guru) who has realized God within. Every Hindu worship starts with a shloka that says – Guru is the trinity (Brahma Vishnu Mahesh). This is another issue Westerners have with Hinduism. So many Gurus have come to the west and not been understood, even condemned for being Godmen. Hinduism realizes that God does not send prophets once in a millenia. God is ALWAYS PRESENT on earth. Anyone who becomes free from mind, Karma, can fully embody God consciousness and becomes a Guru. So in reality Hinduism is totally democratic, in that an individual has total freedom to choose his/her deity and Guru as well as has a method to fully realize God.

      June 14, 2014 at 4:23 am |
      • dandydillmore

        >>This only confuses someone who tries to understand God intellectually. <<
        Vs what?

        June 23, 2014 at 1:14 pm |
        • sharpenu

          Again, there is no "God" in Hindu Dharma and there is no provable "One God." Advaita means non-dual and is actually beyond word description. Of course, to get to this absolute, one must first understand and follow dvaita or duality.

          June 24, 2014 at 8:47 am |
  5. bryonmorrigan

    There are plenty of Polytheist Hindus, as the Vedas themselves are completely Polytheistic. Just because many modern Hindus have accepted the Christian-Islamic idea that Monotheism is more "advanced" than Polytheism does not make it true.

    "I had an occasion to read the typescript of a book [Ram Swarup] had finished writing in 1973. It was a profound study of Monotheism, the central dogma of both Islam and Christianity, as well as a powerful presentation of what the monotheists denounce as Hindu Polytheism. I had never read anything like it. It was a revelation to me that Monotheism was not a religious concept but an imperialist idea. I must confess that I myself had been inclined towards Monotheism till this time. I had never thought that a multiplicity of Gods was the natural and spontaneous expression of an evolved consciousness." - Sita Ram Goel, Hindu Philosopher

    June 7, 2014 at 8:54 am |
    • sharpenu

      Indeed, Monotheism is an imperialistic doctrine. Hindus should think seriously about this, for many Hindus (mis)use the Monotheistic term "God" and even say "One God." Of course, there are fundamentalist Hindus who do believe that their Deity (often they say "God") is the One.

      June 7, 2014 at 9:10 am |
  6. thesamyaza

    oh i should wright one of this for Shinto

    May 19, 2014 at 3:51 pm |
  7. sealchan

    I just realized the great irony of this article's ti-tle "9 myths about Hinduism - debunked". Religion is full of myth. Not in the derogatory sense usually implied in modern usage, but in the sense, as I would have it, of great literature full of psychological insight into human experience. Myth, dream (or visions) and ritual are the source of religion, yet in the wake of the empirical science of recent times, ritual, dream and story is only "fiction" or "primitive" or otherwise an embarrassment to the halls of truth. Unfortunately, this is an over-emphasis on so called reality. Imagination has deep value for humanity but tends to take a back seat in the minds of many even while the same people ritualistically follow sporting events or spend money to sit in the pews of the movie theatre and watch sermons delivered by fantasy (past) or superhero (present) or science fiction (future) movies.

    Until it is realized that myth holds truth even if it requires a historical or literary analysis to fully access it. It does so in a way that objective knowledge cannot, which is to relate it to one's own personal experience of what is and what is possible in the realm of human experience. Its all about what makes life worth living!

    May 15, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
    • sharpenu

      Very nice. Humans have always loved a good story and this continues to this very day. Learning the meanings of the stories and symbolism in religion and otherwise can make one's life infinitely rich.

      May 16, 2014 at 8:00 am |
    • vernekar5

      Well said. I believe the "myth" , a combination of synchronicity and ideals that go beyond our our mundane primitive thinking, holds a greater truth. Hinduism, like many religions are not supplanted with pointillistic "facts", that go very far from understanding the greater picture and gestalt of our conscious experience. I think the article wants to give us an "US Weekly" or "People" magazine look at understanding great concepts..

      May 16, 2014 at 2:37 pm |
    • thesamyaza

      myth historical definition
      "a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon."

      do not subvert definitions with your own in order to belittle people ei changing the definition to
      Myth modern definition
      "a widely held but false belief or idea."

      May 19, 2014 at 3:56 pm |
  8. 19covenant19

    Great MIRACLES have been discovered in the BIBLE.
    You can absolutely see it with your own eyes
    now here.

    http://www.holy-19-harvest.com
    ==BIBLICAL EXCELLENT MIRACLES==

    May 11, 2014 at 7:07 am |
  9. kishankt

    300 million or trimurthies all same, once we start describing God in our images, there is no end, nothing but chaos, just visit any hindu temple.

    Karma ideology is stretched , Hindus want explanation in describing God even though bhagwad geeta says otherwise.
    Mahabharat is the longest not Geeta as the author says.

    May 6, 2014 at 9:30 pm |
  10. shankarkashyap

    Brilliant synopsis of a much maligned subject. I wish this could ne made even more popular and public.

    May 5, 2014 at 3:24 pm |
  11. london wills for fast easy online wills

    ' This is akin, perhaps, to Islamic societies forcing women to cover up from head to toe.' Why the need to have a pop at Islam at every opportunity? This is under-handed brainwashing and fear mongering and with bad 'facts'.

    May 2, 2014 at 1:33 am |
    • memezaa

      By making the comparison, the author is saying that making the women cover themselves it NOT part of the religion of Islam, just as women being subservient to men is NOT part of the Hindu religion. Islam might deserves an article this is one.

      May 6, 2014 at 1:55 am |
    • bec215

      There is a nuance in the Author's comment that you are missing: the Koran says men AND women should be modest, and gives prescriptions for what that means, including covering of hair for women. It does NOT say women must be veiled, and covered head-to-toe, hands and feet... THAT is a cultural prescription of certain patriarchal societies and typically pre-dates Islam in those cultures. The author is saying that Hinduism, like Islam, is not inherently misogynistic, but that certain cultures may piggy-back on religious principles to suit their own agenda. And it's natural for someone from South Asia to draw a comparison to Islam, since there is a comparatively small Christian or Buddhist population... Orthodox Christian women also cover their hair and dress in loose, modest clothing, as do Orthodox Jews – but none of them have sects or countries, to my knowledge, that require a burka, for example. Again – the author is DEFENDING Islam – the Koran – not condemning it!

      June 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm |
  12. vernekar5

    This is a pretty horrible article. The author is trying to simplify Hinduism for Western CNN readers who deserve better. There is no nuance and subtlety and she doesn't talk about major concepts that would help those unfamiliar to get a more rooted knowledge. For example, could the author possibly mention the symbolism of the bindi or "red forehead dot" representing the "third eye" or "inner guru" then just relegating it as only a fashion statement? Also, the male and female aspects of divinity (God and Goddess) are worshipped equally. Caste was originally conceived for people to make the most of their God given talents (a proper distribution of the workforce) not a birthright.

    April 30, 2014 at 1:59 pm |
    • memezaa

      I thought the article was decent, but I also have read alot about it. As for the rest of your comment, I agree, but you need to be an open-minded person to imagine something so different from what you know. Most people will dismiss it because its obliviously wrong, since what they believe is right. This is why its so hard to argue about religion, a person will only convert if they're open-minded enough to think something else is right. Those who aren't are the ones that continue to argue for it.

      May 6, 2014 at 2:37 am |
      • vernekar5

        My point is that Hinduism is a gorgeous religious system, and the article does not do it service.

        May 6, 2014 at 3:05 am |
        • bec215

          One would hope that reading this article would encourage non-Hindus to seek more information about it – but as soon as you get into the philosophical elements of any religion, you are going to see people clicking away from a page. E.g., a Hindu friend said to me once "Christians may think it's weird that we have dieties with blue skin – but you EAT yours... that's gross!" LOL... I think we have to consider a starting point.

          June 23, 2014 at 5:34 pm |
  13. sharanyameenadchi

    Reblogged this on Sharanya M..

    April 29, 2014 at 11:51 pm |
  14. sharpenu

    To see perhaps a more thoughtful understanding of the Hindu/Yogic Dharma, visit classicalyoga.org

    April 29, 2014 at 11:17 am |
  15. snowr14

    One aspect I absolutely admire about Hinduism is that they do not shove their version of truth on the others as "the absolute unequivocal truth you better follow, or else -".

    You want to follow and be a hindu, go for it. If you do not, find a version of truth that suits you.

    April 28, 2014 at 2:55 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.