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Contradictions in the Doctrine of Hinduism

Info: 3473 words (14 pages) Essay
Published: 27th Oct 2021 in Religion

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Hinduism stands out as a unique religion. Its polytheistic values, the absence of a single founder or a specific theological system, belief in the cyclic nature of creation are some of the reasons that contribute to its uniqueness. Another remarkable distinction is that unlike Abrahamic religions, Hinduism does not have fixed doctrines or a single holy book. Multiple canonical scriptures like Vedas, Gita, and Shastras can coexist. But as more scriptures emerged, there have been instances of contradictions between the teachings of various holy books. Some contradictions "co-existed for a time, then slowly merged and were made part of a cohesive doctrine so that only the eye of an analyst can now detect that there were originally some ideas at odds with each other. However, not all contradictions have been resolved." This paper argues that the absence of a fixed doctrine fostered these unresolved contradictions. The paper also presents examples of inconsistencies in the canonical Hindu writings concerning subjects like the creation of the universe, paradoxical attitudes towards women, Idolarity and Karma.

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Most religious teachings try to answer questions about the existence and creation of the universe. The literature influenced by Abrahamic religions such as the Biblical cosmology proposes that "the universe of the ancient Israelites was made up of flat disc-shaped earth floating on water, heaven above, the underworld below."2 The Latin phrase creatio ex nihilo​ which means "God created the universe out of nothing"[1] is a fixed doctrine in the Abrahamic world. However, in Hinduism, there is no single deity or an established explanation for the creation of the universe. There are different myths in different Hindu literature which contradict each other.

The first creation story of the universe called the Hiranyagarbha originates from the ancient text Rig Veda. Hiranyagarbha translates literally to the Golden Embryo. According to this hymn, the inception of the world is the consequence of the Golden Embryo. "In the beginning, the Golden Embryo arose. Once he was born, he was the one lord of creation."[2] This hymn implies that the Golden Embryo is the origin of life. It gave birth to the lord of creation, who created the rest of the universe. However, Rig Veda consists of another hymn, Purusa-Sukta which proposes the opposite; before the creation story of Hiranyagarbha there exists some form of a god called Purusa: "When the gods spread the sacrifice with the Man as the offering."[3] We can see that these hymns from the Rig Veda contradict each other and do not provide a fixed doctrine of creation.

The post-Vedic scriptures of Hinduism have multiple creation theories: Sarga, primary creation of the universe and Visarga, secondary creation of the universe. Purusa is referred to as the primary creator, "Brahma who is often conflated with Purusa"[4] is regarded as the secondary creator. But the secondary creation story varies based on the epic. "The Ramayana states that he is self-existent, created himself as a boar, raised the world from primeval waters with his tusk and formed the universe. In the Mahabharata epic, he sprang from the right side of the great god Mahadeva. Others believe that Mahadeva sprang from Vishnu's forehead and Brahma sprang from Vishnu's navel, or from the lotus growing from Vishnu's navel, which makes him an avatar of Vishnu."[5] This suggests that Brahma is the creator of the universe.

However, other holy books like the Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana consider Lord Vishnu as the supreme god while Brahma is one of the many avatars of Vishnu whose job was to create the universe. The following scripture from Srimad-Bhagavatam sums it up:

"The Gandharvas said: Dear Lord, all the demigods, including Lord Śiva, Lord Brahmā and

Indra, along with Marīci and the other great sages, are all only differentiated parts and parcels of Your body. You are the Supreme Almighty Great; the whole creation is just like a plaything for You. We always accept You as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and we offer our respectful obeisances unto You."[6]

This hymn from Srimad-Bhagavatam considers Vishnu the creator of the world and Brahma is just an incarnation of Vishnu.

According to Advaita Vedanta, there is no plurality. The Supreme Brahman is non-dual and it is the only state of existence. This means there can only exist a single Bhraman. Now according to Shaivism and Svetasvatara Upanishad Rudra is the Bhraman: "Rudra is truly one; for the knowers of Brahman do not admit the existence of a second, He alone rules all the worlds by His powers. He dwells as the inner Self of every living being. After having created all the worlds, He, their Protector, takes them back into Himself at the end of time."[7] We can see how the teachings of Advaita and Shaivism combined together suggests that Lord Shiva is both the universe and the creator of the universe himself.

From the above paragraphs, we can see contradictions between Rig Veda, Shiva Purana, and Vishnu Purana. Each of the books consists of ambiguous hymns that raise contradictions. Some post-Vedic texts consider Brahma as the ultimate creator who is responsible for the secondary creation called Visarga. Vishnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana consider Brahma as an avatar of Vishnu hence, Vishnu is the ultimate creator. Lastly, Advaita and Shaivism together infer Shiva is the universe himself. Again we can see how flexibility in the doctrine of creation led to contradictions in the Hindu texts.

Hinduism is centered around practices guided by written and oral sources. There is no central authority for all Hindus that keeps a check on the doctrine or practices. The absence of such a backbone jurisdiction allows the religion to diversify which sometimes leads to a contrary interpretation of the scriptures. In this regard, there is a considerable uniformity and structure in the Abhramic religions like Islam, Christianity, and Judaism since they have a determined doctrine. Such a flexibility also leads in different statuses and roles based on caste and gender. The next set of contradictions involve paradoxical attitude towards women and contradictory myths about the caste system in India.

Women in the Hindu world have always received mixed treatments. On one end Hinduism is one of the few religions to have both God and Goddess in constraint to any Abhramic religion while on the other end it also nurtures a toxic patriarchal system of family. To give examples of mythological contradictions on the state of Hindu women let's look at one of the oldest scriptures the Manusmriti which talks about the duties and obligations of women: "By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house.

In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent.

Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.

No sacrifice, no vows, no fast must be performed by women apart (from their husbands); if a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven."[8] As we can see how following these rules in the 21st century nurtures a toxic masculine, male dominated and virulent patriarchal family. However the same script also talks about happiness and honor of the women:

"Women must be honoured and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands, and brothers-in-law, who desire their own welfare.

Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards.

Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers.

The houses on which female relations, not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic.

Hence men who seek (their own) welfare, should always honour women on holidays and festivals with (gifts of) ornaments, clothes and (dainty) food."[9]

Let's look at Ramayana yet another time. Valmiki's Ramayana is an epic which is based completely on the fact that Rama loves his wife Sita and respects her enough to fight a demon to rescue her wife. While the main story of the epic is in favor or honoring women Tusidas' rework of the epic called Ramacaritamanasa shows every negative stereotype possible for a woman. Specifically, Tulsidas balmes Dasaratha for the banishment of Rama because he trusted a woman: "What a thing to happen at a time such as this! I am undone by putting trust in a woman like an ascetic who is ruined by ignorance when his is about to win the fruits of his austerities."12

Another example of hypocrisy and contradiction from the epic Ramayana is about inflicting pain on others. In the text Uttarakanda Rama has a dialogue about the same with his brother Bharata as he speaks:

"Brother, there is no religious duty like benevolence and no sin like oppressing others. I have declared to you the verdict of all the Vedas and Puranas, and the learned also know it."[10]

However, in the same epic Rama asked Sita for an Agni Pariksha, where she had to prove her loyalty towards Rama by stepping into a holy fire. This is utter hypocrisy as Rama was teaching his brother about non-violence and anti-oppression and now he asks his wife to step into a fire to prove her honestly.

The other major contradiction is about Idolatry. Ancient Hindu texts like Rig Veda and Upanishads have mentioned that God has no shape or form and there is just one god. However, most Hindu festivals do not go without worshiping an idol. In fact, in practice it is the opposite of what is mentioned in the Vedas. One could find an idol of almost every deity. Festivals like Durga Puja and Ganesh Chaturthi are revolved around idol worshiping. To understand this contradiction we might have to take a deeper dive into the actual text from the Vedas.

Bhagavad Gita says idol worship is for unintelligent people for gratification of material desires and for personal gains: "Those whose intelligence has been stolen by material desires surrender unto demigods and follow the particular rules and regulations of worship according to their own natures."[11] This means that one should stop worshiping idols and start a meditative worship of the supreme Brahman. However, it is also mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita that "For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifest, the path of realization is full of tribulations. Worship of the unmanifest is exceedingly difficult for embodied beings."[12] This means that the worship of the impersonal Brahman is extremely hard since Brahman is formless. It is much easier to focus on qualities, virtues, aspects of a manifested representation of god, through one's senses, emotions and heart, because the way human beings naturally are. This is the reason idol worship exists.

However, some people consider this form of Hinduism contaminated. They believe that the only form of Hinduism is the reaching taught by the Vedas which does not allow idol worship: "They are entering darkness, those who worship the natural things(like air, water, fire etc. ), they are sinking more in darkness who worship created things."[13] This contradiction led to one of the greatest Hindu reform movements called the Arya Samaj. "The samaj was founded by the sannyasi (ascetic) Dayanand Saraswati on 10 April 1875."[14][15] The samaj is a monotheistic Hindu reform movement that teaches beliefs based in the infallible authority of the Vedas which does not involve idol worship. This is a very good example of how flexibility in doctrines lead to contradictions in the practices of Hinduism.

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The final example we are going to see is the doctrine of Karma and the contradictions associated with it. The basics of Karma doctrines is that each person is responsible for his or her own actions and no one else can enjoy the benefits or bear the cost of their actions: " Single is each being born; single it dies; single it enjoys (the reward of its) virtue; single (it suffers the punishment of its) sin."[16] However, the contradiction to this law is the "transference or sharing of the results of action."[17] According to ManuSmriti, "quarter of the evil goes to the doer, a quarter to a (perjuring) witness (in court), a quarter to all councillors and a quarter accrues to the king"[18] this is a clear contradiction of the law of Karma which does not allow sharing of benefits or the cost of one's actions.

In fact, there are examples of transferences and sharing of Karma in the ancient Hindu scriptures and tales. One such example is "when Visvamitra uses his own ascetic power (tapas) to send King Trisanku with a physical body to heaven. These contradictions are not part of and do not constitute a separate doctrine opposed to karma. Their mutual logical relations, if any, have not been worked out. They are part of a body of many floating Indian beliefs whose consistency mutually and with other established doctrines has not been established. It is now evident that any statements concerning the place of the karma doctrine in the post-Vedic Hindu belief must be greatly qualified. The doctrine should not be regarded uncategorically a fundamental Hindu precept."[19] This ties back to the argument about the absence of fixed doctrines of Karma.

These contradictions are deeply rooted to the fact that Hinduism is a complex religion. Since it is the oldest religion that relied on Shruti to teach its lessons, the teachings evolved overtime and when different people started documenting the doctrines it was obvious to aspect differences in different religious scriptures. Hinduism is a mass of apparent contradictions. This becomes clear when we study its numerous scriptures, pay attention to its diverse philosophies, methods of worship, paths to liberation, social divisions and moral values.

This paper was an attempt to argue that the absence of a fixed doctrine fostered these​ unresolved contradictions. We started by the creation stories and saw how there were contradictions within Rig Veda about the creation stories: Golden Embryo and Purusa-Sukta. We also saw contradictions between Rig Veda, Shiva Purana, and Vishnu Purana about the creator of the universe. Then we took a digression and saw hypocritic and paradoxical attitude towards Hindu women. We looked at how ManuSmriti and Ramayana both had scriptures that were hypocritic hence contradicting. Then we saw the emergence of a Hindu revolutionary movement Arya Samaj due to a contradiction between the teachings of the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. Finally, we saw the inconsistencies in the doctrines of Karma where one scripture showed that the benefits or costs of Karma can not be shared whereas another scripture showed the transferences and sharing nature of Karma. Since, Hinduism does not have a central well established doctrine of belief and actions, a lot of the time ambiguity is left at the readers interpretation which gives rise to contradictions in Hindu Mythology.


[1] ​John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 442

[2] O'Flaherty, The Rig Veda, 27.

[3] ​O'Flaherty, The Rig Veda, 30

[4] Bruce Sullivan (1999), Seer of the Fifth Veda: Kr̥ṣṇa Dvaipāyana Vyāsa in the Mahābhārata, Motilal Banarsidass, ISBN978-8120816763, pages 85-86​

[5] Charles Russell Coulter, Patricia Turner (2013) Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities​

[6] A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad-Bhagavatam, 4.7.43

[7] Dr. Ramananda Prasad, Svetasvatara Upanishad, 3.2

[8] G. Buhler, trans., The Laws of Manu (London: Oxford University Press, 1886), 5:147-149, p154-156

[9] G. Buhler, trans., The Laws of Manu (London: Oxford University Press, 1886), 3:55-59 12 Ramacaritamanasa , R. C. Prasad, trans., (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1991),​ Ayodhyakanda, 270

[10] Anantanand Rambachan (2014), A Hindu Theology of Liberation, SUNY Press​

[11] A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad-Bhagavatam, 7.20​

[12] A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Srimad-Bhagavatam, 12.5

[13] Devi Chand, Yajurveda, Chapter 40, Verse 9​

[14] Hastings J. and Selbi J. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Kessinger 2003 part 3. p.

[15] . ISBN 0-7661-3671-X

[16] G. Buhler, trans., The Laws of Manu (London: Oxford University Press, 1886), 5:147-149,​ p154-156

[17] Arya, U. (1972). Hindu Contradictions of the Doctrine of Karma. East and West, 22(1/2),

[18] G. Buhler, trans., The Laws of Manu (London: Oxford University Press, 1886), 5:147-149, p154-156

[19] Arya, U. (1972). Hindu Contradictions of the Doctrine of Karma. East and West, 22(1/2),

 

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