Unlike Islam, Hinduism lacks a single authoritative scripture and a historically known founder. In a sense Hinduism is a synthesis of the religious expression of the people of South Asia and an anonymous expression of their worldview and cosmology, rather than the articulation of a particular creed. The term Hinduism applies to a large number of diverse beliefs and practices. Although religion can best be understood in a regional context, the caste system, beliefs, rituals, and festivals of the Hindus in Bangladesh -- about 16 percent of the population--are peculiarly Bengali.
A distinction has sometimes been made between the religion of the "great tradition" and the popular religion of the "little tradition." The great (or Sanskritic) tradition, sometimes called Brahmanism, developed under the leadership of Hinduism's highest caste group, the Brahmans, who as the traditional priests, teachers, and astrologers enjoy numerous social privileges. The great tradition preserves refined and abstract philosophical concepts that exhibit very little regional variation. At this level, there is emphasis on unity in diversity and a pervasive attitude of relativism.
Hindu philosophy recognizes the Absolute (Brahma) as eternal, unbounded by time, space, and causality and consisting of pure existence, consciousness, and bliss. The highest goal is release (moksha) from the cycle of birth and rebirth and the union of the individualized soul (atman) with Brahma. To attain this goal, a person may follow one of several methods or paths of discipline depending on his or her own temperament or capacity. The first of these paths is known as the way of works (karma marga). Followed by most Hindus, it calls for disinterested right action--the performance of one's caste duties and service to others--without personal involvement in the consequences of action. The way of knowledge (jnana marga) stresses union by eliminating ignorance; mental error rather than moral transgression is considered the root of human misery and evil. The way of devotion (bhakti marga) advocates union by love; its essence is a complete and passionate faith in a personal deity.
For most of its adherents, Hinduism encompasses a variety of devotions and sects that center on one or more of the great gods and are expressed at least partly in a regional context. The great tradition recognizes a trinity of gods, who are actually forms of absolute Brahman: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Brahma receives little notice; everyday devotion tends to center on the worship of Vishnu and Shiva (known by a variety of names) and their countless respective consorts.
The worship of Shiva has generally found adherents among the higher castes in Bangladesh. Worship of Vishnu more explicitly cuts across caste lines by teaching the fundamental oneness of humankind in spirit. Vishnu worship in Bengal expresses the union of the male and female principles in a tradition of love and devotion. This form of Hindu belief and the Sufi tradition of Islam have influenced and interacted with each other in Bengal. Both were popular mystical movements emphasizing the personal relationship of religious leader and disciple instead of the dry stereotypes of the Brahmans or the ulama. As in Bengali Islamic practice, worship of Vishnu frequently occurs in a small devotional society (samaj). Both use the language of earthly love to express communion with the divine. In both traditions, the Bangla language is the vehicle of a large corpus of erotic and mystical literature of great beauty and emotional impact.
On the level of the little tradition, Hinduism admits worship of spirits and godlings of rivers, mountains, vegetation, animals, stones, or disease. Ritual bathing, vows, and pilgrimages to sacred rivers, mountains, shrines, and cities are important practices. An ordinary Hindu will worship at the shrines of Muslim pirs, without being concerned with the religion to which that place is supposed to be affiliated. Hindus revere many holy men and ascetics conspicuous for their bodily mortifications. Some people believe they attain spiritual benefit merely by looking at a great holy man.
Hindu ethics generally center on the principle of ahimsa, noninjury to living creatures--especially the cow, which is held sacred. The principle is expressed in almost universally observed rules against eating beef. By no means are all Hindus vegetarians, but abstinence from all kinds of meat is regarded as a "higher" virtue. High-caste Bangladeshi Hindus, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in South Asia, ordinarily eat fish.
Common among Hindus is the acceptance of the caste system as the structure of society. For virtually all Hindus, even those in revolt against some aspects of the system, caste is taken for granted as the way of life. To be considered Hindu, a group must identify itself in some way as a unit in the caste hierarchy. One cannot join a caste; one is born into it and lives, marries, and dies in it.
Hindus in Bangladesh in the late 1980s were almost evenly distributed in all regions, with concentrations in Khulna, Jessore, Dinajpur, Faridpur, and Barisal. The contributions of Hindus in arts and letters were far in excess of their numerical strength. In politics, they had traditionally supported the liberal and secular ideology of the Awami League (People's League). Hindu institutions and places of worship received assistance through the Bangladesh Hindu Kalyan Trust (Bangladesh Hindu Welfare Trust), which was sponsored by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Government-sponsored television and radio also broadcast readings and interpretations of Hindu scriptures and prayers.
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