One of the interesting things about studying religion in a secular, academic setting was how much that study impacted my understanding of my own faith. In each of my courses, as I learned about ways of understanding and interacting with the divine that were wholly foreign to me, I was challenged to add something to my idea of who God is and how I should worship him.
Perhaps the class that challenged me the most on this level was “Introduction to Hinduism.” Hinduism was different. Really different. It was the only non-Abrahamic faith I had a chance to study in depth, and at first, the other-ness of it was almost overwhelming. But as the semester went on and I got a better feel for the material we were covering, I was extremely intrigued.
One of the things I find most challenging about Hinduism is their conception of the divine. I was under the impression before beginning the class that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, one that worships many gods. This is true to an extent, but I quickly realized it is a vast oversimplification. Hindus do have stories of many gods, but there is no set pantheon. Everyone worships the gods they choose, and there are many different versions of how many gods exist and who those gods are. There are local gods that are only worshiped in a very specific geographic area, and sometimes particularly holy people are worshiped as new incarnations of a particular deity or as new deities in and of themselves. (This is a great oversimplification in and of itself, which I am making for the sake of space.)
The reason for this fluidity is that Hindus believe that all gods are expressions of a single divine entity, the Brahman. So Ganesh, the maker and remover of obstacles, is one expression of the divine. Shiva, the ascetic whose frenzied dancing creates and destroys the universe, is another. Durga, the warrior goddess; Kali, the destroyer; Krishna, the embodiment of erotic love and divine joy; all are expressions of a single divine consciousness.
As Christians, we mostly call our single divine consciousness “God” or “Father” or “Jesus.” Occasionally we remember the third part of the Trinity and throw in a “Holy Spirit” for good measure. But when we go back to the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, we find many names for God. He is the Lord of Hosts, God My Strength, God My Salvation, God Who Avenges, God is There, God My Provider, and many others. Some of these divine names even invoke the feminine!
I think it’s easy, as a Christian, to form an incredibly one-sided view of God. We anthropomorphize, shaping God in our own image instead of acknowledging the vastness and complexity of who and what God is. Sometimes, when I am struggling, it helps me to remember the many expressions of the Hindu divine, so that I can re-affirm that God contains within himself everything I could ever need him to be.