Of the many religions in the world, some, like Islam, derive from the same Semitic tradition as Christianity, and share many features with it. Others - Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism - are from regions much further removed from these, both physically and intellectually; they offer radically different perspectives and demand a correspondingly greater change in our understanding. What have long been basic assumptions of Western thought - the reality of the external world, the soul as a simple substance, the linear nature of time - are called into question.
In the case of Hinduism, once the crossing has been made many find that what lies on the other side, and behind the lush tangle of religious imagery, is a surprisingly clear structure of thought. Hindus have always been metaphysicians at heart. For them it is the underlying ideas, and not the imagery in which they are clothed, which ultimately count. It is these ideas, rather than the gods and myths which express them, which will be given most attention in this book.
The word Hindu was originally a geographical rather than a religious term. It was first used in the Persian Empire, and then by the Greeks who followed Alexander in his conquests, for those who lived around the banks of the great Indus river system in what is today the Punjab. The Indians we call Hindus do not among themselves use that term for their religion. To them it is vaidika-dharma, the Vedic religion, or simply sanatana-dharma, the eternal religion, the primordial tradition as it has been since the first unrolling of the universe. If asked his religion, such a man is likely to answer that he is a worshipper of this or that deity - of Vishnu or Rama, Krishna or Shiva or Durga. Thus an illusion of polytheism arises. That he is a Hindu is simply taken for granted, for to those born within its fold it seems so normal, natural and timeless as hardly to need a name.
Buddhism and Sikhism share many common characteristics with Hinduism as it was at teh time of these religions' birth. Indeed, the Buddha, and Mahavira, the founder of the jain sect, spoke many similar concepts as the Upanishads and Brahmanas. All these three were part of a period between 600BC and 300BC, a period in Indian history when philosophy was undergoing a rigorous change.
In the West people often think of Hinduism as ancient and unchanging. Ancient it certainly is, but the forms of Hinduism are not, and have rarely ever been, static. On the contrary, they have exhibited an almost continuous development. What is unchanging is the bedrock of metaphysical principles upon which Hinduism rests, and this is symbolized by the special position accorded to the Vedas, the sacred texts regarded as unalterable truth. But the forms in which, for the purposes of worship, these truths are clothed are many and changing: 'The once all-important and all-powerful Indra was demoted to the rank of a minor deity ruling over one of the quarters. His lieutenant Vishnu was elevated to the central place in the Trinity. Rudra, the terrible, became Shiva the auspicious. Many other deities like Dyaus, Aryaman and Pushan were quietly despatched into oblivion!
One of the ways in which Hinduism differs strikingly from those religions which the West is most used to is that it has no fixed minimum of doctrine. There is no Hindu creed and no central authority, no Vatican or Pope. Hinduism is not a tightly defined religion but rather the way of thought of an entire ancient and populous civilization. In the words of a distinguished Indian writer: ‘Almost bewildering is the variety of doctrines that go under the name of Hinduism. It is customary to regard every man of religion as a believer in a personal Deity. But so far as Hinduism is concerned, this is not an essential requirement. One may be a Hindu and yet not believe that the ultimate reality is a God endowed with the attributes of personality. Even those Hindus who consider the plenary being to be a personal God conceive of Him in different ways.’