Hinduism is vast, beautiful, terrifying and confusing. Of the world’s great religions, it is the one that we in the West probably know least about. Christians share a history with Judaism and (to a lesser extent) Islam. Buddhism has been fashionable for decades. But Hinduism remains something of an enigma.
It is notoriously hard to pin down. Hinduism doesn’t have a single scripture that fits into one book. It has many holy writings, from the Upanishads to the Vedas, and different groups hold different scriptures to be of differing value.
We tend to think we know certain things about Hindus: that they are polytheists, for example, and vegetarians, and practise yoga. But these are gross simplifications. Yes, many Hindus are polytheists, especially in the more remote villages, but many others see all the different “gods” as manifestations of one divine reality. Not all Hindus are vegetarians (though most would consider it good for your karma). And what we think of as “yoga” is only one of the various physical and spiritual practices that Hindus call yoga.
In Hinduism, the “supreme spirit” is called “Brahman”. His three “aspects” are “Brahma” (the creator), “Vishnu” (the preserver) and “Shiva” (the destroyer). The branch that focuses primarily on Vishnu is referred to as Vaishnavism. One subset of Vaishnavism was founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486-1534), who taught that actually the “supreme personality of godhead” was not Vishnu, but Krishna, one of his avatars (incarnations).
In 1965 an elderly man called AC Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada gave up everything to travel to America to spread this branch of Hinduism, which we know now as Hare Krishna. When Westerners think of Hare Krishna practitioners, they are likely to picture people in saffron robes (in fact, only celibates wear these) selling books on high streets and chanting the Maha Mantra (popularised by the Beatles): “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare.”
As a teenager I came across a book in my school library called Easy Journey to Other Planets, by Prabhupada. Although the title was a tad deceptive, I was hooked. For several years I considered myself a Krishna devotee, consuming the books and regularly visiting their temple. This culminated in me moving into Bhaktivedanta Manor, a former convent in Watford donated to the movement by George Harrison, and having my head shaved.
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