I was raised in a Mormon-influenced household and our concept of God was pretty much in line with other Christian religions. At age twenty I thought that I completely understood the concept of God. I would have told you about God the creator, his son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. That’s all there was to it. It was the Christian view of God and it was as simple as that. Now, at age 58, I think I’m a lot closer to figuring out this “God” thing, but my conclusions are a whole lot different that they were 38 years ago.
I was raised in an environment of religious and cultural non-diversity. Protestants and Catholics used to debate the fine differences between the theologies of each denomination. When I was growing up in the sixties I knew Protestants who were convinced that all Catholics were going to hell. I suppose there were a few Catholics who felt the same about the Protestants. Only later in life would I realize that despite the appearance of diversity among Christian denominations, they were actually very similar. Having only been exposed to Christianity, I was not familiar with Hindus, Buddhists or other world religions, nor did I know anyone who practiced these religions. As such, my religious beliefs and concept of God had been formed in an environment of religious non-diversity. In short, I was a product of my Christian, Caucasian neighborhood.
The door to cultural and religious diversity opened to me on a month-long trip to India in January of 1997. I was privileged to stay in the homes of five Hindu families, living in each household for about 5 days. Hinduism isn’t an evangelical religion. Of the world’s major religions, only Islam and Christianity are evangelical. Unlike Christians and Muslims, who try to “convert” you to their beliefs, Hindus don’t care if you accept Hinduism or not. No Hindu will ask you to accept Ganesha (the elephant God) as your lord and savior. If you inquire about Hinduism, the Hindus will answer your questions. If you aren’t interested, that’s OK too. Unlike Christians and Muslims, Hindus don’t believe you’re going to burn in hell if you don’t convert to Hinduism before you die. Likewise, Buddhists are not evangelical.
Most members of the Hindu families I stayed with were fairly religious. Some of them would pray to God in the morning, doing their private worship ( known as “Puja”) in a small worship center located in a closet or a dedicated room in the home. While Hindus worship a number of deities, including Hanuman (the monkey God) and Ganesha (the elephant God), they don’t get hung up on which of over 1,000 Gods are worshiped. In the Hindu mind, God is universal. Some of my Hindu friends have told me that there is really one God who is manifest in many images, kind of like the Catholic saints. For example, St. Christopher is the patron saint of travel. Ganesha is the Lord of new beginnings. So as a Catholic might pray to St Christopher before taking a long automobile journey, a Hindu might pray to Lord Ganesha when he opens a new business or moves into a new house.
Religion is a powerful force. It can be used to foster love, compassion, and good works and it can also be used as a rationale for war and hate. In the Hindu families I stayed with, love abounded. It was stronger in some families that others, but all families paid respect to God and felt that God was an integral part of their lives. In this case, religion was a force for good, leading people toward a better understanding of themselves and others. It was a force for tolerance and restraint. It was good for all concerned. I found among three of my Hindu families a degree of love and spirituality that was equal to what I have found in the finest Christian homes. In short, they had “gotten it right”, and Hinduism had helped them get there.
For several years after my first trip to India I thought carefully about the nature of God. I was given to understand that God loves all people of all religions, and he doesn’t play favorites. When a good Hindu, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or Buddhist leaves this earthly realm, God does not forsake him because he was a member of the wrong religion. At the end of the famous “tunnel of light”, the Christian sees Jesus and the Hindu may see Ganesha. Perhaps the Muslim will see Mohammed. Risking the alienation many of my readers, let me suggest that I have a strong suspicion that these are all the same Guy! We call him God!
How we envision God is a quirk of culture and birthplace. I am a Christian. This is largely because I’ve been brought up in the United States and I had parents who took me to church nearly every Sunday during my youth. When I pray, I invoke the name of Jesus Christ and always will. But I don’t think that God listens to me any more than my Hindu friends who invoke the name of Shiva. You see, the God I worship doesn’t care where a human being was born or about the specific religion in which he or she has been indoctrinated. He loves them all!