In case some readers, Hindus in particular feel offended by what I have to say, I want to make it clear that I see religion as the creation of man and nothing divine, no matter what any believers, especially priests and religious scholars might say.
The first thing to note is Hinduism cannot be viewed as religion deriving its authority from a book or the teachings of a founder: these are just sects. The appropriate term for what we now call Hinduism is “Sanatana Dharma”. It is not a creed like Christianity or Islam, but a philosophic system that has spiritual freedom as its core. Any path that accepts the spiritual freedom of everyone may be considered part of Sanatana Dharma. It has no national or geographical boundaries. Unlike Mecca for Islam and Jerusalem for Christianity, any land in any country can be the Holy Land for Hindus.
HINDUISM IS ANADI (BEGINNING-LESS), AND APAURUSHEYA (WITHOUT HUMAN FOUNDER)
The basis of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma is the quest for cosmic (spiritual) truth, just as the quest for physical truth is the domain of science. The earliest record of this quest is the Rigveda. Its scripture is the record of ancient sages who by whatever means tried to learn the truth about the universe, in relation to Man’s place in the cosmos. They saw nature—including all living and non-living things—as part of the same cosmic equation.
This search has no historical beginning. This is not to say that the Rigveda always existed as a literary work. It means that we cannot point to a particular time or person in history and say: “Before this man spoke, the Rigveda did not exist.” On the other hand, we can say this about Christianity and Islam, because they are historical religions with human founders.
This brings up another important facet of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism: it is a-paurusheya, which means it is not originate in any man (purusha). That is to say it has no historical founder like Christianity has Jesus Christ and Islam has Prophet Muhammad. We can say that Jesus is the purusha of Christianity while Muhammad is the purusha of Islam. These religions cannot exist without their founders. Christianity and Islam are therefore paurusheya. Hinduism has no such purusha on whose authority it exists. Great figures like Krishna and Rama are only teachers and exemplars that we may accept or reject. Hence they are referred to as purushottama (best of men)
Further, all human have divinity within them which may be cultivated and by which humans can attain divinity. Similarly humans have also elements of evil like greed and misuse of force which turns them into what Krishna calls asura. This gives rise to the concept of daivic (divine) and asuric (demonic) by the dominance of traits (divine and demonic) present in every one of us.
Hinduism has no clergy
Hinduism is a-paurusheya in a deeper sense also, which brings it close to science, and brings its spiritual quest close to the scientific method. In paurusheya religions, the word of the purusha (founder)—be it Jesus or Muhammad—must be accepted without question. This gives rise to an enforcing authority known as the clergy to ensure that no one deviates from the ‘true path’ as shown by the founder, but in reality as dictated by the human representative who claims to be the true spokesman of the purusha. He is the enforcing authority of the true faith.
This naturally leads to men exercising political power in the name of God. This is what we call theocracy. The authority is the scripture, which is said to represent the word of God as conveyed through his medium (the Purusha). In this scheme, the medium eventually becomes more important than God. For example, it is Jesus not his God that defines Christianity. Also, the sacred book becomes also the law book in the hands of its enforcers.
Cosmic truths existed before the arrival of Vishwamitra and Krishna. These sages, who first expressed them, were historical persons but the truth of their message is eternal and always existed.
This feature—of focusing on the message and its truth rather than the authority of the source brings Sanatana Dharma close to science and the scientific method.
Hindu thinkers and philosophers can be quite emphatic on this point.
Shankara (788-820 CE, above) said, “Scripture is not any word of God but compiled (by humans) based on knowledge and experience.”
His successor and critic Madhva (1238-1317, above left) went further. With steely logic he dismissed the notion of prophetic medium altogether. “Accept nothing on the authority of a purusha (human) for humans are subject to error and deception. One deludes oneself in believing one free of error and deception existed, and he alone was the author of the work.”
The Buddha was gentler, and also cautioned, “Accept nothing on my authority, Think and be a lamp unto yourself.”
Freedom leads to pluralism
From this it is clear that what governs a revealed religion is not God but the founder who claims to be God’s intermediary. (The clergy acting in the founder’s name becomes the enforcing authority or the thought police.) A believer is one who accepts the intermediary as the savior. God is irrelevant. He is even dispensable but not the intermediary who is all-important.
Hinduism recognizes no intermediary as the exclusive messenger of God. In fact the Rigveda itself says: “ekam sat, vipra bahuda vadanti,” meaning “cosmic truth is one, but the wise express it in many ways.” The contrast between exclusivism and pluralism becomes clear when we compare the following statements by Krishna and Jesus Christ.
It is a serious error to say that all religions say the same thing. They emphatically do not. Krishna of the Bhagavadgita says: “All creatures great and small—I am equal to all. I hate none nor have I any favorites…. He that worships other gods with devotion worships me.” Jesus of the Bible says: “He that is not with me is against me.” – Dr N. S. Rajaram
This means that Krishna has no favorites and accepts all forms of worship—even worship of other deities. But revealed religions like Christianity and Islam could not exist without favorites or intermediaries like the Prophet or the Son of God. The Bible says that God is jealous. Reflecting the “jealous God” of the (Old Testament), the chosen intermediary is also jealous. In fact it is the jealous nature of the intermediary that created the jealous God.
HINDUISM AND SPIRITUAL FREEDOM
So the single most important theme of Hinduism is the freedom of the spirit. Just as science insists on freedom in exploring the physical world, Sanatana Dharma embodies freedom in the exploration of the spiritual realm. There are no dogmas or prophets—or their agents—to block the way. This allows Hinduism, like science, to grow and evolve with time. Dogmatic religions on the other hand are frozen in time. (In fact, a good deal of the effort by the priesthood in Islam and Christianity is to ensure that the original teachings do not become corrupted due to change.