The light of god's wisdom

26th May 2006 at 01:00
James Heartfield takes a look at the ancient Hindu religion, where most families have a prayer room in their home

In 2010 the first state-supported Hindu school opens in Harrow. It is a long time coming. Of the world's 970 million Hindus, 700,000 live in the UK. But Britain's Hindus are pointedly ecumenical.

"Truth is one, the wise call it by different names," the Hindu saint Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) said after studying the beliefs of Christians and Muslims. It is an idea that appeals to the pantheistic root of Hindu belief, Brahman, the timeless animating soul of the world.

The ecumenical spirit of Hinduism is in keeping with its ancient origins, some 3,500 years ago, emerging slowly out of the Vedic traditions that also underpin Buddhism and Jainism. And it is also in keeping with the 19th century reforms that wove together the quite disparate practices of the different castes into a unitary religion.

Harsha is a governor at Hargrave Park school in Islington, north London, where her son Prem is in the second year. Assemblies at the school are pretty ecumenical anyway, but she thinks it is good for Prem to experience other religions. Harsha grew up in England after her Kenyan-Asian parents chose British citizenship in the 1960s, and sang along to the hymns in assembly. "It is the same being," she claims, just the words are different.

But she did feel a special calm listening to Hindu hymns.

Councillor Navin Shah in Harrow has worked hard for the pound;9.8 million grant for a single faith school. Twenty per cent of the London borough's population is Hindu, and in time there will be 240 places at the I-Foundation sponsored school. East African Hindus, mostly Gujaratis, have large communities in Wembley and Neasden, as well as Harrow. There are also many Hindus in Thorton Heath, Enfield, Hounslow, Hillingdon and Forest Hill. Outside London, 72,000 Indians make up almost half of Leicester's population, with large Hindu populations in Thurrock and Aberdeen.

Harsha is in two minds about the proposed school in Harrow. It is good that Hindus have a school; after all, other faiths do, but she prefers her children to attend state schools to be a part of the community. Still, she is pleased that she did not have to go to a Christian church to win a place at a church school. Of course, there is already a private Hindu school, Harsha's husband Barat points out, attached to a temple in west London.

Hindu worship is largely a family affair. There is a family prayer room for reading scripture and chanting the name of god, Om. Hindus light a lamp to remind themselves of the light of god's wisdom. They greet each other with "namaste", two hands together and a bow, meaning to subordinate the ego to the other, and to god; and they touch the feet of elders, to honour authority.

The soles of the feet often stand for what is unclean in Hindu practice, so treading on books, or touching other people with your feet is a transgression that should be followed with an act of contrition.

The ecumenical character of mainstream Hindu worship reduces the potential for conflict with schools. But Hindu children will not eat beef, sometimes not any meat at all, though Prem finds the choice at Hargrave Park accommodates his beliefs.

Harsha would like to have more time with her sons on festival days, but she has undertaken to talk to the school about Diwali, the festival of lights, which suits their comparative religion approach.

The greatest misunderstanding that Harsha and her son have encountered is being mistaken for "Pakis", which, of course, they are not.


The Hindu Council of the UK:

Calendar of Hindu Festivals: http:festivals.iloveindia.comhindu-festivals.html

The National Council of Hindu temples ( lists UK temples: http:www.nchtuk.orgcontent.php?id=79 Swamini Vimalananda and Radhika Krishnakumar, In Indian Culture, Why Do We?



There are three deities, together called the Trimurti

Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the sustainer; and Shiva, the destroyer. But the ground for all three of these is Brahman, the eternal basis of all things. Other popular deities include Devi, the divine mother; Krishna, the supreme person; Ganesha, represented with an elephant's head who symbolises balance; Hanuman, a monkey who stands for loyalty; and Lakshmi, goddess of good fortune.

Sacred Texts

The Bhagavad Ghita, a 700-verse poem based on the Mahabharata is the sacred text. It consists of a discussion between Krishna and Arjuna on the eve of a climactic war, mostly reflecting on Krishna's supreme nature. The Bhagavad Ghita dates back either 1,500 years BC or 3,500 years, according to the interpretation. The Vedas are hymns dating back to a similar time, praising the Aryan gods and, like the Bhagavad Ghita, are evidence of an oral tradition. The Upanishads are commentaries on the Vedas, often turning on questions of authority and duty.


Religious observance is primarily domestic. Indian temples honour different gods, though outside India they tend to be all-purpose Hindu temples.

Indian society was formally divided into castes, Brahmans (priests and intellectuals, spring from Lord Brahma's head), Kshatryis (soldiers, from his arms), Vsyas (merchants, from his belly) and Sudras (artisans, from the soles of his feet).

Religious Indians, especially married women, wear a tilak or pottu - a coloured mark on the forehead. In earlier times these were distinct colours according to caste.

There are many festivals, the most important of which is Diwali, falling in October.

"A unique feature of Indian culture is its self-rejuvenating capacity,"

write Swamini Vimalananda and Radhika Krishnakumar, "customs that are obsolete are dropped, as can be seen in the cases of human sacrifice, animal sacrifice, suttee, untouchability, etc." (From In Indian Culture, Why Do We? (Central Chinmaya Mission Trust).

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