Some surprising things crop up when we consider Hinduism, a religion whose Eastern roots may make it the hardest for us in the West to understand.
For one, there’s the polytheism issue. Most of us have understood Hinduism to be a polytheistic religion, worshipping as many as millions of different gods and goddesses. But actually, all of these different deities are considered by most Hindus to be manifestations of the one true god, usually referred to as Brahman. Brahman is utter and complete perfection, pretty much beyond human knowledge and comprehension. Brahman is life itself, and all living things are alive because they have a spark or a piece of Brahman in them.
The many different manifestations of Brahman happen in order for people to have a Brahman that they can know and encounter in a personal way. The differently-named gods and their idols or icons are ways that a Hindu person can focus on some aspect or attribute of Brahman and guide their prayers and spiritual growth.
Brahman gives every person a duty to fulfill, or a dharma, of bringing good and peace into the world. Whatever you do and say that does that and fulfills your dharma builds up good karma in the universe. It also brings good karma to you. But if you do things that are against your dharma and hurt people or things, then you bring bad karma into the universe, as well as onto yourself.
When you die, if you have brought more good karma into the universe than bad, then you will advance spiritually and move closer to Brahman, or God. In your next life, you will continue to learn about the divine piece of God within you and be able to make more harmony in the universe, and thus continue to advance until you are ultimately completely at one with God.
But if your balance sheet tips the other way, then you may stay where you are on the spiritual continuum or even move backwards, until you learn what you need to know about your dharma to Brahman.
The idea of karma – that what you do in this life has a direct relationship with what happens to you, either in this life or in your next – kind of rings true for us in a lot of ways. It’s how our society works. We have laws in place in order to make things as fair as we can manage without destroying personal freedom. Obey the laws and things are supposed to go well for you. Disobey them and things will probably go less well.
And it’s sort of a cornerstone of the way we expect things to work in the world. If I’m the older, larger child who knows more and might either cheat or bully my younger sibling in a game, what do my parents tell me? “Play fair.”
If I’m the younger child and my older sib gets to stay up an hour later, just because they’re older – an accident they had nothing to do with and a status they were just given instead of earning it – what’s my response? “That’s not fair.”
We expect this idea of fairness and balance in most of our movies, too. A real villain has to have an appropriately creative death in an action movie or else we’ll be stuck with all the misery he or she caused.
As Christians, we believe in something completely different. We believe in a system that’s completely and totally unfair.
Oh, we understand that acting apart from God has consequences, sure. We just don’t accept that anyone can act any other way. A movie example of this would be the scene in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven where the young gunman confronts the reality that he has just killed a man. He’s sick about it and tries to justify himself, because the man played a role in an attack on a prostitute. “Well, he had it comin’” he says.
“We all got it comin’, kid,” Eastwood growls back. And that’s straight out of the Apostle Paul, telling us in Romans that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We’ve all got it coming, and the only reason we don’t get what we’ve got coming is that God reached out to us in Christ and allowed us to let him take it instead. Through grace, the one guy who didn’t have it coming can stand in for all of us who do, and our broken relationship with God can be healed.
Completely, totally, 100 percent unfair.
Thanks be to God.