The majority of Asian Indians practice the Hinduism. The other major regions are Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Christianity and Islam; and a small percentage of population practice Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Baha’I’ Faith.
About 900 million of the 6.5 billion world population are Hindus, making Hinduism the fourth-largest religion in the world. Most Hindus living in the United States are of Asian Indian origin. About 80% of Asian Indian immigrants practice Hinduism.
The US Hindu population is growing rapidly, from an estimated 227,000 in 1990 to an estimated 766,000 in 2001. Current estimates range from 1.1 to 1.5 million. Most US Hindus are either first-, second-, or thirdgeneration immigrants with their religious and cultural practices of Hinduism greatly influenced by their country of origin (see Table 1) and their level of acculturation.
The correct name of this ancient religion is Sanatana Dharma, which means “eternal law” in Sanskrit. Also known as, the Hindu Dharma, Hinduism is one of the oldest organized religions in the world, tracing its roots back to 5000 BC. It originated in the Indian subcontinent on the banks of the Sindhu river (now Indus river) and was practiced by the Sindus (people who lived on the banks of the Sindhu), who were later known to the Greeks as Sindhus and finally as Hindus (a Persian word).
In contrast to some of the other organized religions, Hinduism can be more aptly described as a philosophy or way of life that has been subject to numerous interpretations over several millennia, now resulting in a religious practice that incorporates a remarkable diversity of cultural rituals and customs. Hinduism’s philosophical core is rooted for the most part in the three fundamental Hindu scriptures: the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagvad Gita. Since Hinduism’s inception over 5000 years ago, countless interpretations and reinterpretations of the sacred texts have obscured the line between religion and cultural practice. However, the philosophical tenets have remained remarkably constant.
18th/19th Century painting depicting Krishna and Arjuna at Kurukshetra—a scene from the Bhagvad Gita. Source: Wikipedia. Public Domain.
The pursuit and practice of the Hindu dharma is governed by a belief in karma (from the Sanskrit root kri meaning “action”)—the concept that every action leaves an imprint on one’s Atman (soul or spirit). Karma is determined by a universal law (or order) in which good actions produce good results and bad actions produce bad results. Karmic theory greatly influences the patient’s world view of health, death, and dying and of the Hindu’s explanatory model of illness.
Many Hindus may believe that pain and suffering (both physical and psychosocial) are the result of bad karma and not of medical or mental illness.
Many older and more traditional Hindu adults may believe their illness is caused by bad karma from a past life or by past actions in this lifetime, and they may not entirely believe in the organic etiology propounded by Western biomedicine. As a result, an illness may be viewed as something to be accepted and endured rather than fixed or cured. In some situations, these beliefs may induce a quiet fatalism that can result in therapeutic non-adherence.
Buddhism is an ancient Indian religion founded by Siddhartha Gautama Buddha. Gautama was a Hindu Prince of Kapilavatsu. India who was deeply disturbed by the experiences of worldly suffering. He gave up his royal life and became an ascetic. After years of meditation, he attained bodhi (enlightenment) when sitting under the Bodhi tree in Gaya, India. Buddhism adheres to ahimsa (non-violence) and advocates for giving up worldly desire in order to attain nirvana or salvation.
The Four Noble Truths
The Four Noble Truths were taught by Gautama Buddha after attaining Nirvana and are thought to be the essence of Buddhism:
- 1. Life leads to suffering suffering (dukkha).
- 2. Suffering is caused desire (kama).
- 3. Suffering ends when a person gives up desire and enables attainment of the liberated state of Enlightenment (bodhi).
- 4. Reaching this liberated state is achieved by following the eightfold path laid out by the Buddha.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path is a way to attain prajña (consciousness) and thereby nirvana (liberation):
- 1. 1. dṛṣṭi (Sanskrit for sight): viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be.
- 2. saṃkalpa (intention): intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness.
- 3. Vāca (Sanskrit for speech): speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way.
- 4. Karma (Sanskrit for actions): acting in a nonharmful way.
- 5. ājīvana: a non-harmful livelihood.
- 6. vyāyāma (Sanskrit for effort): making an effort to improve.
- 7. smṛti (स्मृति Sanskrit for “that which is remembered”): Self-awareness and mindfulness with equanimity.
- 8. samādhi (समाधि Sanskrit for state of consciousness): This is a temporary liberated state attained by dyana (meditation). Nirvana is a permanent state of liberation.
Buddhism is one of the largest religions in the world. Many Asian Indians are Buddhists. As Buddhism is derived from Hinduism, many of the Hindu tenets like karma, ahimsa and the concept of rebirth are followed in Buddhism. Most Buddhists are vegetarians.
According to Jainism, every living being has a soul. Every soul is potentially divine, with innate qualities of infinite knowledge, perception, power, and bliss (masked by its karma and desires). The present cycle, thought to be a downward swing, has 24 Tirthankars, the first of which was Rishabhdev and Vardhaman Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankar for this cycle of time. Vardhaman Mahavir is a prince-turned-ascetic who lived 2,600 years ago and was a contemporary of Gautam Buddha and is mistakenly thought to be the founder of Jainism.
The three gems of Jainism—Right Faith, Right Knowledge and Right Conduct provide the path to salvation. Jains believe that there is no supreme divine creator. The universe is thought to be self-regulated and every soul has the potential to achieve divine consciousness (siddha) through its own efforts.
Jains believe that to attain enlightenment and ultimately liberation, one must practice the following ethical principles:
- 1. Non-violence (Ahimsa) – to cause no harm to living beings. This is the fundamental vow from which all other vows stem. It involves avoiding intentional and unintentional harm to any other living creature.
- 2. Truthfulness (Satya) – to always speak the truth Given that non-violence has priority, all other principles yield to it, whenever there is a conflict. For example, if speaking truth will lead to harm of violence, it is perfectly ethical to be silent. Thus Jains may practice non-disclosure and practice the concept of protective truthfulness.
- 3. Non-stealing (Asteya) – to not take anything that is not willingly given.
Traditional Jains don’t normally eat or drink anything after sundown is because it is believed that this can cause the death of microorganisms that emerge in the dark. The Jain lifestyle is geared towards causing least harm to other creatures and the environment. Jains are vegetarians. They do not eat onions and garlic (as these are thought to increase sexual desires). Jains also do not eat any roots and tubers like potatoes and carrots because uprooting the plant leads to the death of the plant. Additionally uprooting the plant may result in the death of smaller underground insects and microbes.
Many traditional Jains (especially women) undertake fasting. There are four common types of fasting:
- 1. Vruti Sankshepa: limiting the number of items of food eaten
- 2. Rasa Parityaga: giving up favorite foods
- 3. Partial fasting: eating just enough food to avoid hunger
- 4. Total fasting: giving up food and water completely for a short period
Fasting to death (Santhara or Sallenkhana)
Santhara or Sallenkhana is a procedure in which a Jain voluntarily stops eating and drinking with the intention of dying. In addition to voluntary cessation of eating and drinking, the practitioner of santhara also has to abandons desires (kama) and meditate as they peacefully await death which is thought to liberate their body from worldly ties and free the Atman imprisoned within.
Jain older adults may opt to undertake santhara at the end of life and they are revered by fellow Jains. Santhara deaths may be even celebrated publicly with friends and family showering praise and homage on them and families even placing full page announcement of the event in news papers.
It is to be noted that santhara is thought to be distinct from suicide. In santhara, the person stops eating and drinking and meditates constantly praying for liberation from worldly suffering while allowing nature to takes it course and resulting in the death of the body. Suicide, in contrast, is thought to be an act of violence.