What is Hinduism?

Padmanabhaswamy temple

The Padmanabhaswamy Temple, home of recently-discovered riches beyond imagination.

What is Hinduism? Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, once famously said that “Hinduism is all things to all men.” While this definition does not seem to get us very far, it may actually be more helpful than it appears at first blush. Hinduism is an incredibly diverse phenomenon, something that has roots going back many thousands of years while also retaining an incredible capacity for reinvention, redefinition, and assimilation, at both the local and pan-Indian level. (And, of course, since the Indian diaspora, all over the world.) Continue reading

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Dharma: The First Lesson

A previous post has some thoughts on the idea of dharma and its importance within Hinduism and Hindu ethics. This post will sketch out a lesson plan I do with students in the hopes of introducing them to this complex idea.

At the start of class, I make a drawing on the board with four columns, asking the students to copy it into their notes. Then I ask them to think of 5-10 examples (depending on age of the students) of responsibilities for each of the following individuals. Usually I go with something like these four:

You [The students] | Mr. H [me] |   Your Dentist  |  President Obama/Head of School*

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Dharma: An Introduction

“Dharma is subtle.”

This quotation recurs throughout the Mahabharata, one of the two great epics in Hinduism. (The Ramayana is the other.) Dharma is a Sanskrit word that is often translated as duty or responsibility. It is probably the central ethical idea in Hinduism. It’s also rather complex.

The word dharma is often translated as “duty,” and this definition is a pretty good start. However, there’s more nuance to the term: dharma refers to duties/responsibilities that a person has to uphold the functioning of the communities in which they are enmeshed. Dharma is action that upholds the world. As such, it is linked quite closely to a person’s identity: in my case, I have specific dharmas as a son, a partner, a teacher, a colleague, a tenant, and so on. Performing my dharma, then, is a matter of acting in a way that preserves and upholds the social orders I am a part of: my family, my classroom, my workplace, my home – my communities. Continue reading