For my write-up today on Ari Goldman’s The Search for God at Harvard, I’ll talk some about Goldman’s chapter on Hinduism.
Goldman opens this chapter with a conversation between a Hindu teacher and his pupil. The pupil repeatedly asks how many gods there are, and the teacher first responds with 3,306, then 33, then 1 and 1/2, and finally one. Goldman did not then do what I expected him to do—-to say that Hinduism believes that the millions of gods are manifestations of one god (which I have heard, but I do not know if that’s true or not). Rather, Goldman proceeds to contrast Hindu pluralism (“the question of God…can be seen from different valid angles”, Goldman on page 80) with the Western preoccupation with finding one truth, and to say that Hinduism believes that “Reality…far exceeds what we can ever imagine or express” (page 80). Goldman then characterizes Hinduism as henotheistic, which means worshiping one god at a time. According to henotheism, there is more than one god out there, but you pick one to worship, and you then treat that one as the only god (or goddess). Goldman tells the story of Vishnu and Brahma arguing over who was the “ultimate Creator” (page 81). Each then enters the body of the other to understand the other’s point-of-view, they gain a new perspective and honor each other as creator, and the fiery god Shiva consumes them. Goldman says that many Hindu tales don’t make much sense to him, and I’d say the same thing in describing my own reaction, as a Westerner—-for, after all, how can both gods be the ultimate creator? But, like Goldman, I still find the tale to be intriguing.
Later in the chapter, Goldman talks about two Harvard Divinity School students who were interested in Hinduism. One was a Jew named Gary, who was interested in parallels and “theological and historic links” between Hinduism and post-biblical, pre-Christian Judaism. Goldman does not go into much detail on this, but he does say that Gary showed him that Krishna is mentioned in the Book of Esther. The text is probably Esther 1:14, which mentions Carshena as one of the seven princes who advised King Ahasuerus of Persia. (So was Krishna a human being before he was divinized, according to this view?) The other was a lady with a United Church of Christ background, Diane. Goldman did not talk much about her interaction with Hinduism, but rather her spiritual journey and her wrestling with whether or not she should become a minister.
Gary and Diane are gay, and, according to Goldman, they liked Harvard Divinity School because that was one of the few seminaries where being gay was considered all right. As Goldman says on page 85: “At most seminaries, being homosexual is a cardinal sin; at the Div School, the cardinal sin is being homophobic—-that is, discriminating in any way against homosexuals.” I found that to be true when I was there. On the one hand, I still see (in retrospect) the atmosphere of Harvard Divinity School on that issue to have been rather intolerant towards those who regarded homosexual conduct as a sin. On the other hand, I can somewhat understand the desire of the homosexual students there to be at a place where they could be who they are and not be judged. Could there be an atmosphere that draws from the best of both worlds: people just being tolerant of those who choose to believe and live differently from them?