Top 10 Misconception about Hinduism

Many of the questions people ask about Hinduism are based on certain common misconceptions that come up again and again. Some of those misconceptions are so widespread that they go unquestioned and are simply assumed to be true by Hindus and non-Hindus alike.

The Top 10 Misconception about Hinduism

Long ago, I compiled a list of the most frequently repeated errors and called it “The Top 10 Misconceptions About Hinduism.” These topics are especially relevant today when we’re continually bombarded by misinformation in print, on TV, on the internet, and social media.

I’ve addressed each of these misconceptions very briefly here, but many of these topics are addressed in much more depth in other videos I’ve produced. You’ll find links to those videos below.

 Okay, we’ll follow the style of other top 10 lists and start with misconception number 10, which happens to look a bit like a multiple-choice quiz.

Misconception #10 

The two famous epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are 

Misconception #10 about Hinduism
  1. Mythological: Both epics are fictional tales of people who never lived and events that never really occurred.
  2. Historical: Both epics are accurate accounts of bygone people and past events exactly as they took place.

The correct answer to this multiple-choice question is “C: none of the above” because both conclusions are wrong. To understand the Ramayana and Mahabharata properly, we must consider how these great epics first emerged in ancient India. 

Long ago, stories about important historical events were preserved by being passed on orally (shruti) from generation to generation and written out in elegant Sanskrit verses (smriti) meant for oral recitation. 

Those stories included the account of Rama, the son of King Dasaratha, and his struggle to rescue his wife, Sita, who had been kidnapped by the demon Ravana. The Rishi Valmiki put that story into written form in his Ramayana.

Another story recounted the lives of the Pandavas and Kauravas and described the horrendous war they fought in gory detail. The Rishi Vyasa composed the Mahabharata based on that story. 

Valmiki and Vyasa were utterly unlike modern novelists who create stories with fictional plots and imaginary characters. Those Rishis wrote about actual historical events but were also utterly unlike modern historians or academic scholars who record past events as accurately and objectively as possible.

The tradition of storytelling in ancient India was to enrich historical stories by incorporating sections that convey important principles of worldly and spiritual wisdom. Also, the tradition was to embellish historical stories with fantastic tales and exciting fictitious events to ensure that future generations would be inspired to read them. Valmiki and Vyasa followed these cultural traditions when composing their epics. They expanded their works with powerful spiritual teachings like the Bhagavad Gita found in the Mahabharata, and they added fanciful accounts of chariots flying through the sky and amazing weapons with the destructive force of atomic bombs.

The Ramayana and Mahabharata can’t be considered mythological or historical. They present historically true events in stories enriched by the addition of spiritual teachings and richly embellished with dramatic fictitious events.

Misconception #9

Misconception #9 about Hinduism

Is the caste system prescribed by Hindu scriptures is the cause of many social problems in India, both in years past and in modern times?

That’s a tricky statement because part of it is true, but another part is not without doubt. What we now call the caste system is responsible for the terrible oppression and mistreatment of countless people over the ages, and this dreadful problem continues even today. But what’s not true about this statement is the contention that Hindu scriptures prescribe the caste system.

The roots of the caste system predate the Vedas, the source scriptures for Hinduism. People have always formed social groups by associating with others who have similar activities and professions. But in ancient times, your profession was almost always determined by the family into which you were born. So, long before Hinduism began, four social groups already existed based on your family and profession: there were teachers and priests, kings, ministers and warriors, farmers, and merchants, and paid laborers. Later, the Vedas referred to them as Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras.

A famous Vedic hymn figuratively says, “Brahmanas came from God’s mouth, Kshatriyas from his arms, Vaishyas from his legs, and Sudras from his feet.” This hymn describes God as the source of all people, and at that time, people belonged to one of these four groups. 

Here’s the symbolism

  • Brahmanas are said to have emerged from God’s mouth because their work involves teaching and reciting prayers; 
  • Kshatriyas came from God’s arms because their work consists of wielding weapons and exercising power; 
  • Vaishyas came from God’s legs because their work involves cultivation and travel; 
  • Shudras came from God’s feet because laborers are the foundation of society.

Note that this hymn does not say that Brahmanas are superior to the others or that Sudras are somehow inferior. The Vedas prescribe different religious duties for each group but never condone discrimination or inequality.

Unfortunately, over the centuries, certain Brahmanas were motivated by selfish interests, and they interpreted the Vedas in ways that benefited their caste at the expense of others. As a result, an unjust and extremely harmful social structure gradually evolved. That unfair social structure was not based on Hinduism’s source scriptures; it came instead from selfish, unethical people who happened to have been born as Hindus.

Now, this video I produced addresses the problem of casteism in a broader way.

Misconception 8

Misconception number eight is another multiple-choice question: according to Hinduism, the goal of life is to:

A) Enjoy pleasure.

B) Accumulate wealth.

C) Achieve a better rebirth or go to heaven.

D) Become free from rebirth.

Misconception #8 about Hinduism

Which answer would you choose? The correct one is actually “E) all of the above.” Let me explain.

Western religions accept only one goal of life, and that goal is to go to heaven and avoid eternal damnation after you die. But that biblical doctrine severely diminishes and degrades the value of your day-to-day life. After all, who cares what happens in this life as long as you get to heaven?

In contrast, Hinduism prescribes not just one goal but four goals: dharma (righteousness), artha (wealth), kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation)

Hinduism affirms the value of daily life by accepting kama as a valid goal. Life is a gift given by God meant for your enjoyment. Artha is also accepted as a valid goal of life because you need some money to support your pursuit of pleasure. It’s virtually impossible to enjoy the gifts given by God if you’re penniless and homeless.

Of course, kama and artha must be pursued in ways that don’t harm anyone or are immoral, illegal, or unethical. Next, since Hinduism accepts reincarnation, kama and artha are also meant to be pursued in your next life. For this reason, dharma (righteousness) is included among the four goals

By following dharma and avoiding adharma, you can accumulate good karma, which can lead to a better rebirth or If you accumulate enough good karma, you could even go to heaven, Swarga.

It’s important to note that Hinduism does not consider going to heaven to be the ultimate goal of life. Why not? Because heaven is believed to be temporary, offering a limited lifetime of pleasure born of your good karma, which eventually comes to an end. Your finite accumulation of good karma can’t possibly result in infinitely long heavenly enjoyment. So, after enjoying a lifetime in heaven, you’ll be reborn. 

Unfortunately, you’ll inevitably experience suffering in that next life. So, the fourth goal, moksha, is to escape all suffering and remain utterly and eternally free from misery of any kind. Moksha means freedom. Moksha is not just freedom from being reborn into another life of suffering; it’s also freedom from suffering in this life itself. 

We can’t discuss the details of moksha here, but you can learn much more about life’s four goals in this video.

Misconception #7

Now, let’s see the seventh misconception about Hinduism, a multiple-choice question. 

As a human being, your life is 

  1. predestined: Karma from your past lives determines the course of your life, or it can be 
  2. directed by free will: your choices and actions determine the course of your life. 
Misconception 7 About Hinduism

As you might have guessed, the correct answer is none of the above. The doctrine of karma is a huge and complicated topic, but we can address this question briefly here. First of all, if the course of your life is truly predestined and your karma predetermines everything that you’ll do today, then you have no free will. You have no freedom or power to choose and act in ways that affect your life. But obviously, that’s different from what you experience. Each day, you do make choices and decisions, and you act as you choose. It’s important to understand that the entire doctrine of karma is based on free will. 

By definition, karma results from actions you perform using your free will. If you didn’t have free will, you couldn’t have accumulated any karma in your past lives, and without any past karma, you wouldn’t have been reborn into this life. But even though free will is central to the doctrine of karma, your free will is extremely limited. 

You can’t choose to fly like a bird or decide to cure cancer. As a human being, you’re not all-powerful like God. Your power to control your life is limited since you don’t have total command over the people and situations. Based on all this, the course of your life is neither completely predestined nor completely in your control. Then how shall we understand it? 

According to the doctrine of karma, two kinds of karma determine the course of one’s life. One kind is the result of deeds you committed in past lives and earlier in this life. The good deeds you committed before will eventually bring desirable events into your life, and the bad deeds you committed before will eventually bring undesirable events into your life. But that’s only half the story. Regardless of what kind of events occur, you can choose how to respond to each event. You can choose your response because you have free will. So, in addition to your past karma, your life is affected by a second kind of karma: the actions you choose to perform with your free will. Therefore, the course of your life is partly determined by past karma and the actions you choose. 

You should watch this video to understand the doctrine of karma more thoroughly.

Misconception #6

Now let’s see misconception number six: to follow dharma (righteousness) properly,
a. we must always strictly obey all the rules mandated by Hindu scriptures or
b.we should look into our hearts and follow our conscience. 

By now, you’ve figured out that the correct answer is none of the above. 

Misconception 6 about Hinduism

Hinduism’s approach to dharma is highly nuanced. Unlike Western religions, Hindu scriptures don’t mandate a list of commandments. Why not? This approach can lead to many problems. 

For example, 

  • one commandment in the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” But what about soldiers on a battlefield defending their country from invaders who are ruthless and tyrannical? 
  • Another commandment says, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” But what if your father is a criminal who sells heroin and other illicit drugs? Shouldn’t you report him to the police? 

The problem with commandments is that there are many exceptions to every rule. Sometimes, even the exceptions have exceptions. That’s why attorneys and judges in thousands of courtrooms struggle to understand the maze of statutes in massive civil and criminal law volumes. Based on this, defining dharma according to a system of commandments would be confusing and cumbersome. 

Some people believe it’s best to follow your conscience instead as an alternative to commandments. Unfortunately, conscience can also be a poor basis for dharma in certain situations. As you know, conscience is your natural inborn sense of right and wrong. It develops while growing up due to being praised and scolded by authority figures, especially your parents. If your parents were good role models, your conscience would probably be a reliable guide for dharma. But that’s not the case for everyone. If your father was a drug dealer, you might grow up thinking that selling drugs is okay. Someone’s conscience can be damaged or defective. So, conscience cannot be accepted as the final authority on dharma. 

For these reasons, dharma is based neither on commandments nor on conscience. Instead, Hindu scriptures say, “Ahimsa paramo dharma” (non-violence is the ultimate dharma). The ultimate basis for dharma is ahimsa, the absence of harm or harmlessness. Dharma is based on the simple principle of least harm in every situation. You must determine and follow the course of action that results in the least harm for everyone involved. But sometimes, it’s unclear which path leads to the least harm. In those situations, you should seek advice from those who are wiser than you. When properly understood and applied, this principle of least harm is a reliable guide for following dharma.

Misconception #5

Misconception #5 about Hinduism

Hindus worship the sun, cows, rivers, and idols made of stone or metal. The short answer here is that Hindus worship God and God alone. But then, what about sacred cows and holy rivers like the Ganges? A famous passage in the Vedas says, “Sarvam Khalvidam Brahma” (everything here is Brahman). That means everything in the universe, living and inert, is a form or manifestation of God. From a philosophical point of view, Brahman, or God, is the underlying reality because of which everything exists. God is the fabric of existence, so to speak, like threads are the material because this cloth exists. God is the reality because of which the entire cosmos exists. 

Based on this principle, Hindus believe God dwells within everything: in every person, animal, insect, plant, and rock. Therefore, everything is divine. So, Hindus worship God, manifested in the form of the sun. Hindus worship God, who dwells in every cow and river. Hindus worship God, who is present in the sacred forms established on altars and temples worldwide. 

Here, it’s important to note that Hindus are not unique in using sacred forms for worship. Christians venerate the cross, Roman Catholics revere statues of Mary and great saints, and Jews venerate ornate scrolls inscribed with the words of the Torah. None of those pious people worship mere physical objects; they use these sacred objects in their worship of God. Hindus do the same. 

This topic is explained much more completely in this video I produced about the symbolism of Hindu worship.

Misconception #4

The fourth misconception is relatively easy to address. Hinduism is polytheistic. Hindus worship many gods. You probably know that Hindus worship one God in many forms. The Rigveda says, “Ekam Sat, God is one, but wise address Him with many names.”

Misconception 4 about Hinduism

I’m puzzled by some Christians who insist that Hindus truly worship many gods. After all, Christians worship God the Father, who dwells in heaven. They worship Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the savior of mankind. And they worship the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the hearts of believers. No Christian would call their religion tri-theistic. So why do they say that Hinduism is polytheistic? In classes for children, I jokingly say that Christians worship one God in three forms, but Hindus, who like more variety, worship the same one God in 330 million different forms.

On a more serious note, the Hindu concept of God is so sophisticated that philosophical terms like polytheism and monotheism fail to convey its unique perspective. Western religions are based on the doctrine of monotheism, which declares that God is one, but that one God is separate and different from the world and everything in it, including you and me. 

According to monotheism, God alone is good or divine, and everything different from God is not good, not divine; therefore, the world and all its creatures are somehow evil. Hinduism rejects this doctrine altogether. As we have seen, Hindus believe that the world is a manifestation of God; therefore, everything that exists is divine. 

However, this belief sometimes leads to another mistaken notion: the view that Hinduism is pantheistic. Pantheism is a doctrine that declares the physical world itself is God; there is no God other than the world of nature. Many tribal religions that worship nature are based on this doctrine. 

But Hinduism is unlike these pantheistic religions because, for Hindus, the world is a manifestation of God, but God is more than the world. God exists both within the world and beyond it. To use the language of Western philosophers, God is both imminent, present in the world, and transcendent, existing beyond the world. So, neither polytheism, monotheism, nor pantheism accurately describes Hinduism’s concept of God. For Hindus, God lies beyond all these Western ideas.

Misconception #3

God punishes evil people for their bad deeds and rewards pious people for their good deeds. 

Misconception 3 about Hinduism

I was taught this as a child growing up in a Christian family. Yet many Hindus seem to believe it as well. Many Hindus accept this biblical teaching because Christians have lived in India for centuries, and some of their beliefs have rubbed off, so to speak, on the Hindu population. 

The ancient sages explained that God’s infinite intelligence is the basis for the laws of nature that govern how the universe works. So, the laws of nature are God’s laws, including the laws of karma. 

Based on this principle, according to God’s laws, you receive undesirable results for your bad deeds and desirable results for your good deeds; therefore, you get the results you earned by your actions. If you break something in a store, you must pay for it, but that’s not a punishment. And when you get a paycheck after working all week, that’s not a reward; you get what you deserve based on your actions, according to God’s laws. 

For this reason, it’s not accurate to say that God rewards or punishes you. Also, Hinduism doesn’t consider people who commit bad deeds evil. After all, everyone is divine. But divine beings can commit evil, sometimes horrible, harmful deeds. We’re all capable of committing bad deeds because we all make mistakes. As human beings, none of us are perfect in our thinking and behavior, even though we are all divine in essence.

Misconception #2 

Next is a multiple-choice question that shows several more misconceptions about God. 

A) God always gives us what we pray for. 

B) God sometimes gives us what we pray for. 

C) God never gives us what we pray for.

 Once again, the answer is D) none of the above. 

Misconception 2 about Hinduism

And the doctrine of karma explains why prayer is karma; it’s an action, a good deed. It can be a mental act, like when you pray silently; a vocal act, like reciting a Sanskrit hymn; or a physical act, like offering incense at an altar. 

Whether physical, oral, or mental, each form of prayer is good karma, a good deed, and therefore, it will produce a desirable result, according to the laws of karma. But there’s no guarantee you’ll get the particular result you pray for. Think about it: if your prayers can make God give you exactly what you ask for, you’re apparently more powerful than God. As we discussed, God gives us what we deserve based on our actions, including prayer.

Misconception #1 

Finally, we come to the number one misconception about Hinduism. This item is first on the list not because it’s somehow bigger or worse than the other nine misconceptions; it’s first because it’s the most consequential of them all. It will affect every future generation of Hindus. 

Misconception 1 about Hinduism

In our modern times, Hinduism’s ancient traditions and religious practices:

a) Have little or no meaning or relevance for our lives today.

b) Must be maintained exactly as they have been practiced for thousands of years to preserve Hinduism for future generations.

You already know that the answer is c) none of the above.

Why? First of all, the purpose of Hinduism, like all the world’s faiths, is to serve its followers’ religious and spiritual needs. But those needs are constantly changing. For example, Hindus today live not only in India but worldwide, and they belong to various societies and cultures. All those societies and cultures within India and elsewhere are continually evolving.

Wherever you live, cultural norms today vastly differ from a hundred years ago. Even in our lifetimes, we see huge cultural shifts taking place all around us. As our cultures change, we also change, and not surprisingly, our religious and spiritual needs change. As a result, certain religious practices that nicely served our parents or grandparents long ago might not be meaningful or relevant for us today. For this reason, religious practices must constantly evolve so they can continue to meet our changing needs.

If a religion fails to evolve and adapt itself to shifting circumstances, it won’t survive. For example, the religion of ancient Egypt is dead; no one practices it anymore. Fortunately, Hinduism’s traditions and practices have indeed evolved over the centuries. They’ve evolved quite a bit and continue to do so, although many Hindus might rightly complain that this evolution needs to happen more quickly.

However, some Hindus reject this concept of religious evolution. They claim that Hinduism’s traditions have been carefully preserved over the centuries, allowing us to practice them exactly like in ancient India. But that claim is simply untrue. In the earliest Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda, more prayers are addressed to Agni and Soma than all the other gods. Today, the emphasis of our prayers is completely different. Also, in ancient times, ritual worship always employed a sacrificial fire, performed outdoors in a thatched shed. There were no temples at all back then. Today, of course, most worship takes place in temples.

Now consider this: Suppose a temple in New Delhi or New York decided to maintain all the old traditions and practices exactly as they had been practiced in India hundreds of years ago. As our religious needs continue to evolve, that temple will gradually lose its ability to serve us properly. Eventually, it would cease to be a place of worship. Instead, it would become like a museum, a museum of ancient Hinduism, filled with religious artifacts on exhibit to show how Hinduism was practiced long ago.

Yet, a difficult issue remains to be addressed here. Many older Hindus are deeply attached to certain traditional practices, while younger generations consider those same practices to be old-fashioned and utterly irrelevant. So the question is, how can those traditional practices be adapted in ways that serve the needs of both generations? That’s not an easy question, and I don’t have a simple answer. But my guru addressed this issue by making an important distinction between a religious tradition’s form and spirit. He said we should allow the forms or outward appearances of traditions to change while, at the same time, we should carefully maintain the spirit or essence of those traditions. This issue will continue to be a big challenge for Hindus for generations to come.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that Hinduism is much more than a collection of religious traditions and practices; it also contains profound spiritual teachings, teachings about Brahman (supreme reality), teachings about the true divine inner nature of conscious beings, and teachings that address the problem of human suffering, leading to the ultimate goal of liberation. These are the teachings of Vedanta, first taught by the ancient Rishis and found in the final section of the Vedas. 

Vedanta is not concerned with religious practices, forms of worship, or matters of belief like reincarnation; instead, Vedanta is concerned with matters of spiritual knowledge and matters of truth. Truth is universal and unchanging; what was true in ancient India is still true today, and truth is not subject to evolution or revision. If you attempt to revise a mathematical truth, like the formula for the area of a rectangle, that revision will be a corruption, not an improvement. In the same way, the essential wisdom of the rishis cannot be revised or improved upon, though the style and language of their teachings will continue to be adapted to meet the needs of each succeeding generation of spiritual seekers.

Swami Tadatmananda

Swami Tadatmananda is a well-known spiritual teacher and Vedanta scholar. He is associated with the Arsha Bodha Center in Somerset, New Jersey, USA. Swami Tadatmananda has been teaching Vedanta, Sanskrit, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and other traditional Indian philosophies for many years. He is respected for his depth of knowledge, clarity of expression, and ability to make complex philosophical concepts accessible to modern audiences. Swami Tadatmananda founded the Arsha Bodha Center, a spiritual organization in Pennsylvania, USA. His life is dedicated to teaching Vedanta, a branch of Hindu philosophy.

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