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Hinduism: a Dialogue in the Eastern Religious Thought Class

Hinduism: a Dialogue in the Eastern Religious Thought Class

Eastern Religious Thought is a survey of the major Eastern religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. We not only study the traditions and symbols of each religion but also examine its philosophy and theology. We first studied Hinduism. Hindus worship many deities but recognize that there is only one Ultimate Reality (Brahman). Hindus believe in reincarnation and strive for the ultimate goal of liberation (moksha).

Emma: A Reading from the Upanishads–A seeker named Vidagdha Śākalya approaches the sage Yājñavalkya with the question, “How many gods are there, Yājñavalkya?”

“Three thousand three hundred and six,” he replied.

“Yes,” said he, “but just how many gods are there, Yājñavalkya?”


“Yes,” said he, “but just how many gods are there, Yājñavalkya?”


“Yes,” said he, “but just how many gods are there, Yājñavalkya?”


“Yes, said he, “but just how many gods are there, Yājñavalkya?”


“Yes,” said he, “but just how many gods are there, Yājñavalkya?”

“One and a half.”

“Yes,” said he, but just how many gods are there, Yājñavalkya?”


Talcott: Okay, wait. I’m confused. Henry, how many gods are there really?

Henry: Um, I don’t mean to be rude, Rev. Talcott – at all­ – but…that’s a really irrelevant question.

Talcott: What? What do you mean?

Henry: Well…didn’t you hear what Emma just read?

Talcott: Yes, and it didn’t make any sense.

Henry: Well, it’s not supposed to make your kind of sense.

Bryce: What Henry means is – and he doesn’t mean any offense – we’re talking about the divine here. It’s different than the human. I think, actually, well, I think I’m with Henry; it’s pretty obvious from that reading.

Talcott: Obvious? Nothing about that reading was obvious, except that it makes no sense. I mean, it’s like…it’s like having a God with an elephant head.

Lindsay: That would be Ganesh. [Pause] I mean…the God with the elephant head? That’s Ganesh.

Talcott: Whoever it is, Lindsay, it makes no sense.

Lindsay: Well, it does if you’re a God, and your father cut your head off because he didn’t realize who you were, and your Goddess mother got cosmically angry – I mean COSMICALLY angry, to the point where she almost exploded the universe – and so your father had to find a head really quickly, and the first thing that came along was an elephant.

Eun Soo: Rev. Talcott, why can’t God have an elephant head?

Julie: Yes, pardon me, but who are you to decide what God can and can’t be?

Talcott: Um…

Debby: Rev. Talcott, if you don’t understand what the Divine is, you’ll never achieve unity with the Divine, and that’s the whole point of Hinduism. You are on a spiritual journey, over many lifetimes, to achieving unity with the Divine. As Teilhard de Chardin said, “You are not a human being who is having a spiritual experience; you are a spiritual being who is having a human experience.”

Eun Soo: You may not realize that now; you may be very content in this particular lifetime just having a human experience and not even thinking about the divine, but as Aldous Huxley wrote, “There comes a time when one asks, even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is that all?” Some day, in some lifetime, you are going to want more.

Emma: Rev. Talcott, let me help you in that spiritual journey by telling you a story. When he was a young boy, the beautiful, dark blue God Krisna…

Talcott: Emma, hold it. This is exactly what I’m talking about. God is not blue.

Hannah: Rev. Talcott, Krisna is a God. Of course a God can be blue. Why can’t he be? And not only is Krisna blue, but at a moment’s notice he can change from a baby into a – well, let’s just say a very attractive young man, engaging in some very creative love-play with his lover, Radha.

Debby: A very attractive young man. So attractive that every woman who hears him play his flute goes crazy with desire for him. Um…Don’t take this the wrong way, but that would include you.

Talcott: It definitely wouldn’t include me, Debby; I’m married.

Debby: Well…his lover Radha was married, too.

Emma: (louder) When he was a young boy, the beautiful blue god Krishna was playing and crawling around the courtyard with his friends. He dug up some clay and ate it. His foster-mother Yasoda arrived. Seeing Yasoda, Krisna dropped the clay and cried out like any other naughty toddler, “I didn’t do it!” and shook his head from side to side. Taking hold of both his hands, Yasoda scolded him. Krisna opened his mouth and looked at his mother. Inside his mouth, she saw the fourteen worlds, including the earth and the sky; endless universes comprising the abodes of the gods, the snakes and the humans, as well as the sacred abodes like Goloka and so on. She saw the entire creation within his mouth! She even saw herself and her husband Nanda within Krishna’s mouth. She was unable to speak a word; it all seemed like a dream to her. Filled with love and awe, she couldn’t believe what she’d seen. She had only known Krishna as her beloved son.

Bryce: Rev. Talcott, if you’re going to achieve union with the Divine, with Brahman, you really have to get past your limited ideas of what God is. The whole point is that God is not limited. God is something entirely other from what you think you know. God doesn’t make your kind of sense, and that’s a good thing. If you try hard enough to understand this, you will. Swami Sivananda says, “Put your heart, mind, and soul into even your smallest acts. This is the secret of success.”

Julie: Rev. Talcott, it’s not all myths. If myths work for you, fine. That’s one way to get to the real meaning of the Divine, the Bhakti Yoga way, the way that explains the Divine through the loving action of the Gods. Most Hindus follow Bhakti yoga, because most people find it easier to understand the Divine if they imagine it in human terms. Swami Harshananda tells us, “Man, being what he is, cannot help super-imposing his own states on his gods, too.” Deities are simply aids on the journey: “As long as we are identified with our psycho-physical organism and feel its stifling limitations, we have to take the help of images and imagination.”

Henry: But different people are different, and that’s why there are different kinds of yogas, or spiritual practices. Bhakti is one kind, but there are three others, and lots of combinations of yogas in between. The important thing, according to Hinduism, is that you do what is right for you. Don’t try to grow spiritually in a way that doesn’t feel comfortable to you. Krisna says, “It is better to do your own duty, however imperfectly, than to assume the duties of another person, however successfully. Prefer to die doing your own duty: the duty of another will bring you into great spiritual danger.”

Cooper: Rev. Talcott, you strike me as less of a Bhakti yoga person than a Jnana yoga person. Jnana yoga is the path to the divine not through love of gods, but instead through pure thinking and understanding. That ought to work for a teacher. You don’t have to see the Divine as anything like a God if you don’t want to, because in truth, as it says in the Puranas, “Nameless and Formless Thou art, O Thou Unknowable. All forms of the universe are Thine: Thus Thou art known.”

Lucy: Yes! She’ll like that! That’s the idea of the Divine that Krisna speaks of in the Bhagavad Gita–

“Know this Atman

Unborn, undying,

Never ceasing,

Never beginning,

Deathless, birthless,

Unchanging forever.”

Talcott: Many paths, many techniques, many myths, many Gods, all leading to one ultimate, unchanging reality? Wait—Eun Soo—is Reality one, or is Reality many?

Eun Soo: [after a long pause—Can Rev. Talcott handle this?] Yes.

Talcott: Why do I feel like you are all just messing with me? Why do I feel like this is some kind of game?

Julie: Because it is. As Huston Smith writes, “If we ask why Reality (which is in fact one and perfect is seen by us as many and marred), why the soul (which is actually united with God throughout) experiences itself as sundered, why the rope so often looks like a snake, we confront questions that have no answer. The most that we can say is that the world is “Lila,” God’s play. Children playing hide and seek place themselves in situations from which they must escape. Why do they do so when they could free themselves by simply withdrawing from the game? The only answer that can be given is that the game is its own reward. So, too, in some mysterious way, must it be with the world. Like a child playing alone, God is the cosmic dancer whose routine is all creatures and all worlds. From the tireless stream of divine energy the cosmos flows in endless, graceful reenactment.”

Talcott: OK, I get “endless”; I get “graceful”; I get “loving”; And after all these confusing things you people have told me, I can’t miss “entirely other”; I think I even get “playful.” But, I still don’t think I “get” Hinduism.

Hannah: Well, for what it’s worth, Hinduism “gets” you.

Talcott: OK, Hannah; well, I don’t “get” that.

Hannah: You’re a seeker, right? You’re a spiritual person on a spiritual path? You must be; you’re a minister.   Hinduism recognizes your spiritual path as a valid one, as long as you’re a moral person who appreciates and seeks the Divine. Hinduism is an incredibly diverse religion, just like India is an incredibly diverse place. Believe me, there’s plenty of room for you in there, no matter what your spiritual leanings. Hinduism says of all of us that “it is divinity that shapes not only your ends, but also your acts, your words and thoughts.”

Talcott: All of us? Me too? Even if I don’t “get” it?

Cooper: Who’s going to really “get” the Divine, anyway? We’re all still seeking it. Enjoy it! The Divine is there. Sometimes it’s one; sometimes it’s many. Sometimes it’s nurturing; sometimes it’s fierce. Sometimes it’s found in action; sometimes it’s found in inaction. Sometimes it’s found it both at the same time.

Lindsay: Sometimes it has an elephant head.

Emma: Sometimes it’s a baby with the universe in its mouth.

Hannah: Sometimes it’s an irresistible young lover.

Debby: Sometimes it’s a cosmically angry goddess.

Lucy: And sometimes it has no forms or qualities at all, and can only be apprehended through insight or meditation.

Henry: And because it’s divine, nothing limits it; nothing can keep it from being all of these things all at once to all different people in all different places.

Julie: It is what it is. And it can be what you need it to be; it’s happy to accommodate you. It can even be Christ-like. Of course it can! Why not? It’s Divine!

Eun Soo: And here’s the best thing of all: you “get” it even if you don’t think you “get” it. You’re like a man on a horse looking for a horse. Because it is who you are. It is who everyone is.

Bryce: [Pauses, while he decides whether or not Talcott is ready for this question—this is the final test for her] How many Gods are there, Rev. Talcott?

Talcott: Bryce, the Vedas say, “The Truth is One. The wise call it by many names.” Now really, all of you–stop wasting everybody’s time with these irrelevant questions.


Reverend Talcott’s “Eastern Religious Thought” is Lucy Cao (IV), Julie Geng (VI), Henry Hirschfeld (IV), Bryce Jung (IV), Eun Soo Koh (V), Hannah Marshall (IV), Emma Plumb (V), Lindsay Ryder (VI), Cooper Sarafin (IV), and Debby Yip (VI).


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