There has been a considerable debate extending from recent centuries to current interfaith dialogues as to whether Hinduism is a monotheistic religion, and if so whether Hinduism can perhaps be included among the great monotheistic traditions of the world.
This question of Hinduism and monotheism reflects certain preconceptions that should be carefully examined. First is the idea that monotheism is a higher form, if not the highest form of religion, which is both debatable and controversial.
Second, if Hinduism is not monotheistic, the general implication is that Hinduism must be polytheistic, meaning heathen, pagan, primitive, superstitious and idolatrous. This view also implies the superiority of monotheism over different formulations of the sacred that may have their own value.
Third is the implication – which unfortunately many Hindus take – that if Hinduism is accepted as another monotheistic faith that Hinduism will be afforded more respect in the world in which monotheistic faiths predominate. Yet one could propose to the contrary that turning Hinduism into another monotheistic faith could as likely make Hindus more vulnerable to conversion by faiths claiming to be more purely monotheistic than Hinduism could ever be.
Moreover, monotheism has a considerable baggage and a history that has often been intolerant, oppressive and violent. There are many important thinkers, philosophers, scientists and artists in the West who have long criticized or rejected monotheism. And many great mystics and yogis from throughout the world have also questioned the superiority of monotheism, its practices and institutions, over spiritual approaches to Self-knowledge and Self-realization not tied to one belief system or another.
Hinduism and its Confrontation with Monotheistic Traditions
European colonial thought centuries ago judged Hinduism as polytheistic and pagan, like native and pagan traditions from throughout the world, not as monotheistic. This judgment required that monotheists convert Hindus, along with all similar non-monotheistic traditions, a process that has not come to an end.
Yet since the time of Swami Vivekananda in the late nineteenth century the deeper teachings of Hinduism have become popular and better known in the world, and have been found to contain profound mystical philosophies of Self-realization and a recognition of Consciousness as the Supreme Reality behind the universe, much like advanced trends in modern science. Hindu Yoga and Vedanta contains an understanding of higher states of consciousness, mystical insights, and an awareness of the infinite and eternal -recognizing the vast extent of the universe that appears to go far beyond monotheistic systems and their circumscribed perspectives.
However, as Hindus have come in contact with monotheistic traditions, particularly in countries where monotheism prevails, they have tended to emphasize a similarity between Hinduism and monotheism that is not always correct or to their advantage, and can appear to be a form of self-denigration or self-betrayal.
Some Hindu and Yogic groups have proclaimed that they are also monotheistic, implying a belief in One God, perhaps also one book and one savior, though this may be a Hindu formulation of deity, a Hindu book as scripture, or a great Hindu teacher as the one savior or prophet. Other Hindus would equate the One God of monotheistic traditions with the One Reality, the Supreme Self of Vedantic and Yoga philosophy that is the same and equal in all beings, ignoring the fact that the One God of monotheism is part of a dualistic formulation and is not addressed as the Self of all.
The One God of Exclusive Monotheism
The One God of monotheism is not usually a unitary reality or universal truth but an exclusive being that demotes, denies or rejects all other paths or formulations of divinity. Such a One God is a “singularity,” a one opposed to others, not a universality that embraces all. This is quite different from the unitary Deity of Vedic and yogic thought defined as Atman or Purusha, the Supreme Self.
Such “exclusive monotheism” rejects the worship of the One Reality according to different names and forms. Not surprisingly, the votaries of the One God are usually engaged in plans to convert all of humanity to their particular views, rejecting all others as inferior, out of date or wrong.
Hinduism, on the contrary, honors many paths and levels of spiritual experience, form-based and formless, personal and impersonal. Hinduism includes elements of what western thought might call monism, theism, pantheism and polytheism, but as part of a many sided and multileveled approached to the sacred that honors the freedom of the individual to search out the truth from all perspectives. Yet all these western philosophical terms for religion, including monotheism, are incomplete and cannot encompass the full range of Hindu teachings.
Monotheistic systems generally hold to salvation by belief or by good works that takes the soul into some eternal heaven or paradise after birth as the highest goal, with all other souls condemned to sorrow, if not eternal damnation. They usually reject the karma, rebirth and liberation approach of Hinduism that rests upon Yoga and meditation and cannot be achieved by belief or action alone. Hinduism emphasizes individual spiritual experience through Yoga and Vedanta over any creed or formula. Hinduism does not teach any final heaven or hell, or salvation by belief or works, such as most monotheistic traditions promote.
Theism in Hinduism
There are very ancient, sophisticated and philosophically profound theistic forms of Hinduism that recognize a single creator or cosmic lord behind the universe, what we could call “Hindu Theism.” Hindu theism, however, is not exclusive but inclusive, allowing for a variety of names and forms of the deity as masculine or feminine, father or mother, as well as beyond all names and forms.
Hindu theism does not deny a multiplicity of deities on various levels but regards these as manifestations or developments from the same Divine power.
There are also Hindu approaches that are not theistic or place theism at a lower level. Samkhya philosophy aims at the realization of the inner consciousness or Purusha principle but does not make any One God the basis of that. Advaita or non-dualistic Vedanta regards that realization of the Supreme Self transcends the dualistic world of God and soul.
Buddhism, a related dharmic tradition to Hinduism, does not recognize any God or creator apart from karma. Nor does the Jain tradition.
The Hindu view of the universe is much more than what is regarded in the West as monotheism. The Hindu view is not that there is only one God but that everything is God, meaning by the term God, a unitary being, consciousness and bliss. The Hindu view is that Truth is One and that if one had to choose between truth and God, one would be better off choosing truth.
There are some mystics in monotheistic traditions who may have views similar to the Hindu view of Being-Consciousness-Bliss as the supreme reality behind all existence. But these mystics have remained on the periphery of mainstream monotheistic groups and have often been rejected or oppressed by the more orthodox.
What is Hinduism?
Hinduism as Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal and Universal Tradition accepts all paths to truth or divinity, though it may place these on different levels. Theism is part of this universal approach, but not an exclusive monotheism, and it exists along with many other approaches personal and impersonal, including not only in religion but also in art, philosophy, and science.
To call Hinduism monotheistic or to try to scale it down into the perimeters of western monotheistic religions is misleading and erroneous.
Hinduism is not simply a monotheistic religion. It has more in common with traditions regarded but as pagan and polytheistic. And these negative judgments and stereotypes of Hinduism and other traditions by the monotheists as primitive, pagan and polytheistic are also wrong.
When people ask me whether as a Hindu I believe in God or not, my reply is that I recognize a unitary consciousness behind the universe, but I do not accept the finality of any God born of human historical revelation or limited to any belief system.
We should recognize Hinduism for what it is and monotheism for what it is. Hinduism is like the great banyan tree that stands beyond all limitations and definitions. Monotheism has its primary focus from which it seldom deviates and which usually promotes uniformity.
Hindus should not apologize for not being monotheistic; they should be happy that their tradition never found it helpful to become reduced to any exclusive belief system.
Hindus need not try to make Hinduism appear more monotheistic in order to gain acceptance by others. Hinduism provides a spiritual alternative to the exclusivism and intolerance that is common in monotheistic systems, which many people are questioning. Hinduism draws people to individual spiritual experience beyond the boundaries of churches and dogmas, granting an inner freedom to find the truth.
Hindus accept that the Divine ( not one god )has many manifestations extending to every rock, plant, person, planet and star, from the ground on which we stand to the farthest reach of time and space and beyond. We can discover that Divine face and presence of consciousness everywhere, but for this to occur, we must first discover it within our own hearts and in the hearts of all beings.
How Should Hindus Approach Monotheistic Traditions?
How then should Hindus approach monotheistic traditions? First they should study them carefully and listen to what the main texts and teachers of monotheistic traditions are actually saying. Hindus should try to find out what motivates monotheistic groups to seek to convert not only Hindus but Buddhists, Sikhs and all pagan and native groups. They should not romanticize monotheism as monism or Bhakti Yoga in another form, but should be aware of the monotheistic agendas that are still adverse to them.
This is not to say that one cannot find valuable teachings in monotheism, just as one can also find them in traditions called polytheistic. And if monotheistic groups do want to expand their views to the unitary reality such as we find in Hinduism, Hindus should welcome that. But to do so, monotheistic groups must first recognize that they have not only misjudged Hinduism and pagan traditions in general but perhaps reality itself.
In any case, we live in a vast universe with many different individuals and cultures and a number of views on any topic are likely to always exist. There can be no monolithic final view of religion, philosophy, art, science, or even medicine. Nor is it desirable, as an examination of many different points of view may be necessary to find the highest truth that dwells beyond the limitations of the mind in the light of consciousness alone.
As we move towards a new planetary age, we must accept this diversity of all life, which is of both Spirit and Nature. A background unity is certainly there but it exists above and beyond all divisions of name and form, not as one point of view against another. Not only Hindus but many traditional people and ancient cultures seem to be better aware of that background but many-sided unity than what we would call organized religion. We all share a common humanity and spirituality that we should honor, but we must also honor freedom and diversity in developing it.