A column in our city’s daily dish this morning is written by one of the paper’s better stylists, an Indian woman by birth. Her subject is Hinduism. She says she subscribes to the Hindu religion, but not fanatically or wholeheartedly—she’s an agnostic. Her intention with the essay, she says, is to present a different perspective on some large issues.
Hinduism has a good deal to offer the spiritual wanderer. Its central tenet, that life must be lived over and over again until one is released from it in a communion with God, appeals to our overpowering conviction that our soul—that which makes up our innermost being—is unquenchable. It is unthinkable, we think, that our “I” should ever perish.
Jesus, in that regard, was a Hindu. All of us will have life everlasting, he assured us, but for some it will be less comfortable than for others. This corresponds to the Hindu belief, which posits that in our successive lives we enjoy, or suffer, the consequences of the karma we have accrued in previous ones. But while Jesus advocated for one Heaven, one Hell and one chance at either of them, Hinduism holds out a perpetual clean slate. We can make of our lives our own heavens or hells, by our actions, but life the main thing need not be eternal; we can cast it off by attaining nirvana—sleep.
As an explanation of the riddle of existence, Hinduism isn’t quite satisfactory, but it’s less implausible than Christianity. It accounts for our feeling that our soul is immortal, for the nameless guilt that we carry, that we seem to have been born with, for the mystic affinities we feel for other people, animals, and even inanimate objects; it accords with our sense that life is a progression and our knowledge that it is fitful; it resonates with our deep desire for justice, tempered with mercy.
What it doesn’t get at, any more so than Christianity does, is the reason behind it. What is the point of the whole elaborate operation? Why are we brought forth out of nonbeing, compelled to live life eternally recycled, and then returned, if we’re lucky, to oblivion? Is life some sort of mistake?