Hinduism is an entire universe of gods, concepts, traditions, and philosophies. Just as you can practice any religion concurrently with being a Hindu, you don’t have to be a true believer to take advantage of Hinduism in your writing practice. Many of Hinduism’s core tenets and philosophies apply to writing.
Hinduism traces its origins back to the ancient cultures of the Indus Valley, although the term “Hinduism” itself is a term of administrative convenience coined by Mughal and British conquerors. Hinduism is both the oldest of the world’s major religions, and not a traditional religion at all. It can also be read as a way of life—a slew of beliefs, philosophies, and practices in many different traditions.
What you see in Hinduism is often what you choose to see—because Hinduism is deeply syncretic, it has assimilated cultural and religious practices and concepts from all of the diverse peoples of the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Hinduism embraces both a pantheon of its own homegrown gods and prophets, as well as the gods and prophets of other religions, including Jesus and the Buddha. Hinduism is flexible—there are no wrong answers, just many possible paths to enlightenment. This kind of syncretism and flexibility does a writing practice good as well.
Hinduism also stands in contrast to other religions that rely on a single, seminal text (or person) for spiritual authority. Instead, Hinduism’s major texts reflect the religion’s diversity—the volume of Hindu scripture is so massive it would take several lifetimes to absorb. While foundational texts simply lay out philosophies on the structure and nature of the universe, secondary texts illustrate those tenets through the myths and legends of a nearly endless series of goddesses, gods, demons, people, animals, and spirits.
The Ramayana and Mahabharata (the world’s longest poems) are the best known Hindu texts in the West, but there are literally thousands of others. The former tells the tale of the god Rama, who journeys to the island of Lanka to rescue his wife, Sita, from the demon king Ravana. The latter centers around the moral questions raised by the conflict between two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and Kauravas, who fight a war to end all wars. The oft-cited Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata and a popular condensed source of Hindu wisdom.
Hindu texts can also often be taken together to illustrate fundamental tensions. For example, in the Ramayana, God (in the form of Rama) is an archetype of duty and justice, while in the Mahabharata, God (in the form of Krishna) is a rule-breaker who must take upon himself the responsibility of morally questionable choices to restore the balance of the universe. Both epics raise complex ethical conundrums that continue to be deeply examined by scholars of successive generations. And they offer both rich sources of inspiration for writing, and creative philosophies for how to make that writing happen.
Other Hindu concepts can also be creatively applied to a writing practice. Panentheism (the divine penetrating the universe yet transcending space and time), brahman and atman (the collective and individual manifestations of the divine), cosmic timescales, reincarnation, dharma (the fulfillment of duty), karma (spiritual cause and effect), maya (the illusive nature of the world), and moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth) all have their analogues in the writing space. And Hinduism, like writing, ascribes a special place to sound, with popular chants or mantras thought to have particular spiritual powers.
Any of the texts above can provide an entrée into this universe and lead to a richer writing practice. In my six-week Hugo House class, All-Accepting: Accessing Hinduism in Your Writing Practice, we’ll get deeper into the impact Hindu concepts can have on your writing practice, not just by talking about them, but by feeling and practicing them. Let your writing flow with the universe’s energy—every piece of writing is a vehicle to get closer to truth.
Shankar Narayan explores identity, power, mythology, and technology in a world where the body is flung across borders yet possesses unrivaled power to transcend them. Shankar is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the 2017 Flyway Sweet Corn Poetry Prize, and a Fellow at Kundiman and Hugo House. He is a 4Culture grant recipient for Claiming Space, a project to lift the voices of writers of color, and his forthcoming chapbook, Postcards From the New World, won the Paper Nautilus Debut Series chapbook prize. Shankar draws strength from his global upbringing and from his work as a civil rights attorney for the ACLU. In Seattle, he awakens to the wonders of Cascadia every day, but his heart yearns east to his other hometown, Delhi. Connect with him at shankarnarayan.net.