Religion as doing vs thinking


I’ve been asked many times if I ‘believe’ in Hinduism. Until about 15 I mechanically answered yes. During my bout with rabid atheism I just as mechanically answered no. Now I say something along the lines of: ‘I was raised as a Hindu and it’s a big part of my identity. But I don’t think I can still call myself a Hindu.’ This answer is honest and more or less answers the question.

But I’m starting to not even like the question. It assumes Hinduism can be understood like Christianity or Islam. That is, the question assumes Hinduism is about ‘believing’ certain things.

Religious Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God and was resurrected three days after being crucified. Religious Muslims believe Muhammad was the final prophet and that the Quran contains the actual words of God. Some people who call themselves Christians or Muslims may not affirm these core tenets. But almost by definition they are not as religious or devout as those who do. I suspect even they would acknowledge they are more cultural than religious. In Christianity and Islam, it seems that religious devotion is strongly correlated with affirmations of belief. Both faiths of course involve much more. But belief is a key component.

It’s not so straightforward in Hinduism. Take the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic that tells (among other things) the story of the Lord Krishna. We can ask if the story is true and whether Krishna existed as a historical figure in the same way Jesus or Muhammad did. We can also ask whether Hindus believe that the events depicted in the Mahabharata actually happened. But it wouldn’t be easy to rank Hindus’ religious devotion based on their answers. I consider my mom and dad to be equally devout Hindus. My dad considers the Mahabharata as mythology whereas my mom thinks thinks of it as history.

Despite this sharp difference in what they believe, both of my parents equally do Hinduism. They both fervently perform daily prayers and Hindu ceremonies. And because they participate in Hindu rituals in roughly equal measure, I have a hard time saying my mom is more religious than my dad. Yes there are secular Catholics who attend mass. But their secularism alone makes them less religious than true believers. My main point is that you can’t make this simple, straightforward link in Hinduism.

To be clear: I’m not saying beliefs and creeds don’t matter in Hinduism, or that ritual doesn’t matter in Christianity or Islam. Clearly Christians are called to act in certain ways and live out their faith. And being a Hindu does involve certain beliefs. It’s that ritual is relatively more important than belief in Hinduism. I think the reverse is true in Christianity.

Here’s the best analogy I can think of. Let’s consider x and y axes, where x is thinking/believing and y is ritual/doing. All religions have both components and fall somewhere in that quadrant. Hinduism simply has a much larger y component than does Christianity. Because of this difference, religious Hindus have to be judged primarily on what they do rather than what they believe.


  1. A slight non-sequitur if I may… I’ve always thought of Hinduism as cultural more so than Islam or Christianity. Of course the latter two grew out of their native semitic cultures, but they attempt at a universal message, one that tries to be applied regardless of culture. Because Hinduism is/was tied to the motherland, it evokes bharat, an Indianness, so to speak. In perhaps the same way that Shinto is distinctly tied to Japanese culture. Thus, it is uniquely linked to the pastoral lives of its adherents so its best expression is more in the doing than in the believing.

    1. Very nice. I like it, and agree. Unlike Christianity and Islam, I’m not sure how people become Hindu. Some Boulder/SF hippies try. But it doesn’t seem as authentic as converts Jesus or Muhammad. Great comparison with Shinto. Hadn’t thought of that.

  2. An excellent explanation so far — still interested to hear more. Hinduism is largely a mystery to me.

    I find your characterization of Christianity to be spot on as well, except to the extent that there are differences within different branches of Christianity. I would say that believing and doing are virtually 50/50 in Catholicism, whereas in Protestantism believing weighs more heavily than doing. But Catholicism still might lean more towards the believing end of the spectrum than Hinduism.

  3. I don’t think you addressed the question of whether Christian ritual and Hindu ritual are conceptually the same. Christian ritual seems to be intended to form a metaphysical connection between the worshiper and the God-in-Three-Persons. What would you say the Hindu ritual is meant to accomplish?

    1. Great question. Based on my experience, you performed various rituals for specific good outcomes you want in your life. So one ritual you would do when, e.g., you bought a new house to protect it. Another you might do before you head off to college. Another to bless your marriage, and so on.

      1. Another question for you on Hinduism. Who or what was supposed to provide the good outcome meant to be evoked by the ritual. Further question. Was there a sense that the quality of the ritual or the virtue of the worshiper affected whether the good that was hoped for was in fact received?

        1. Hi. Sorry for the slow response. That’s another excellent question. The god you were praying to was supposed to provide the good outcome. Ganesha (the god with the head of an elephant) is in general the remover of obstacles. But people also pray to specific gods/goddesses for particular things. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, e.g. The quality of the ritual / worship definitely can affect the outcome. In many Hindu stories, intense devotion is rewarded by the gods.

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