History has proved that since the dawn of mankind, people have had the tendency to make theories about the world around them, and to try to explain their own relationship to that world. Such theories, or creation stories, as we usually call them, are usually so speculative that at the beginning of the 21st century, we are often perplexed by the mere boldness of the claims with so little factual grounding.
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Because of the wide implications of claims that all of those “theories” make, they enter into a logical conflict with each other, and if a person wants to maintain a necessary degree of intellectual honesty, they would have to admit that all of them cannot be true at the same time. In fact, if we want to say that any of these theories is true, we then need to specify only one of them, and justify our reasons for believing it.
In addition, the results of modern empirical sciences also have their implication for some of the claims about the creation of the universe and human nature which enter into a conflict with at least some of those “theories”. Nevertheless, these theories are still very interesting to consider.
Christianity and Hinduism are certainly at the top of the list of important attempts at explaining the origin of the universe and human nature, since approximately 47% of the world’s population belongs to these two religions (World Population and Religious Statistics).
Even though these two religions are similar with respect to such claims as mind-body dualism, the origin of man from matter and God’s reason for creation, they also show some crucial differences such as the way of earning salvation, the nature of post-death experience, and the existence of free will.
First off, these two religions offer quite similar explanations of human nature in terms of mind body dualism. In Hinduism, the basic description of human nature is that human beings consist of two parts which they call ahamkara and atman. Ahamkara, according to Hindu scriptures, is the worldly manifestation of a person mirrored in their position in the social structure, physical characteristics, worldly possessions etc. Atman is the autonomous entity described as “the experiencer of all experience”.
It is the center of human consciousness which is ultimately connected to the Being or Brahman (Stevenson & Haberman, 1998, pp. 50-52). In Christianity, on the other hand, the notion of soul was first clearly outlined by Thomas Aquinas in his theological discussions.
In the Old Testament, there is little reference to the soul, in fact, the Apostles usually talk about bodies being resurrected in the afterlife. Aquinas uses the concept to explain how the person’s identity is preserved form the moment of death until the Judgment day (Stevenson & Haberman, 1998, pp. 74-77).
This essentially one claim about dualism stands very poorly when measured against scientific evidence accumulated by modern cognitive and neuroscience.
It seems very unlikely that there can exist anything similar to soul for several reasons. Firstly, if we consider the fact that it is possible for a person to suffer damage to different areas of the brain and gradually lose their cognitive capacities one by one, it is highly unlikely that at the moment when the last function is lost, they are somehow reassembled and then the person wakes up in the afterlife.
In addition, the fact that there are people born without any cognitive capacities, but they are still alive would suggest that the soul can only be this isolated entity devoid of all experience and self-consciousness. Then the question is: if soul is precisely that, why should people care about it at all?
Next similarity between the two religions is the claim that man originates from matter. In Hinduism, it is claimed that ahamkara or the worldly part of a man originates from the same elements as other beings and dead matter, which makes people essentially connected to the universe (Stevenson & Haberman, 1998, p. 50). On the other hand, in the Book of Genesis of the Old Testament, it is said that God made Adam from dust, and then breathed life into him. This also suggests that origin of life is, in fact, divine.
When we consider these claims from today’s perspective, we can conclude that it is probably true that human beings are constituted from the same material as everything else in the universe.
Modern cosmology suggests that the higher chemical elements where produced in the reactions of nuclear fusion that took place within stars, and then once these stars exploded, this precious material disseminated through space, and finally ended up within human organisms. When we think about it, this theory may certainly seem almost mystical, but it fits perfectly with the claims about essential oneness of the man and universe. Of course, the Christian claim about the divine origin of life is not addressed under this account.
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The third similarity of these two religions is the way in which they explain God’s reason for creation. In the Hindu tradition, it is believed that in the beginning there was nothing and this nothing was Brahman.
Since Brahman was that nothing, it was at the same time everything, but it was lonely, so it decided to divide itself into male and female parts, and from their relationship the multitude of phenomena were born (Stevenson & Haberman, 1998, p. 51).
In Christianity, in the beginning there was only God, and he also decided that he needs some kind of projection of himself so he created the sky and the land and finally Adam. Therefore, the reason for creation in both cases in divine insufficiency, as one might put it.
Now, interestingly, this part of the “theories” is very hard to assess on any ground. From my perspective it is absurd to talk about the reason for creation of the universe intuitively since from what we know, the age of the universe must be around 13 billion years (Wollack, 2010).
Quantum theory gives us an account of what might have happened during the Big Bang, but we cannot know for sure why that happened. For now, science gives us an impersonal probabilistic explanation claiming that due to the vastness of time, it had to happen sometime.
In addition to these similarities, there are also some crucial differences whose implications render the compatibility and truthfulness of both of them together impossible.
First off, the practical sides of the two religions, which are related to the way in which we should live our lives in order to earn salvation, are crucially different. Hinduism holds that knowledge of Brahman is the ultimate value in this life. The teachings say that people should renounce the worldly side of their personalities, and turn to their inner consciousness or atman in the search of knowledge of Brahman.
This knowledge is thought to be unattainable, but the person who comes close to that knowledge fulfills their purpose in this life. This implies that the highest value of Hinduism is wisdom (Stevenson & Haberman, 1998, p. 55). On the other hand, Christianity holds almost an opposite view. In the Sermon on the Mountain, Christ says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. We see that Christianity does not demand any knowledge or wisdom.
It rather sees knowledge as a great danger since it might cause pride which is the ultimate sin in Christian doctrine. The way to fulfill one’s purpose in this life is to serve God. This means that one need only believe in God and love him, and they will be accepted in the Kingdom of Heaven. Many philosophers have found this unacceptable since it means that it does not really matter what one does in this life, as long as they love God (Stevenson & Haberman, 1998, p. 78).
Addressing the issue of what the purpose of human life is is an unusually demanding task, and it would probably require forming a complete philosophical system. Nevertheless, from today’s perspective it seems quite reasonable to agree with Sartre on the idea that Existence precedes Essence, which means that people are free to construct their own purpose in life.
This is a stance of radical freedom, and as such, it has some undesirable consequences, but it seems to be closer to truth than the two religious claims. I can just mention in passing that the Christian doctrine about belief in God as sufficient for salvation appears to be morally deficient. This is because God that values love of him and belief in him more than morality of a person is more egoistic than moral.
The next in the line of differences is the description of the post-death experience. In Hinduism, there exist two possible epilogs to a person’s life. While their body is being burned after their death, those who have renounced the worldly distractions and focused on gaining knowledge of Brahman pass into the fire, and from there to the Sun, which is a gate towards Brahman. After that they continue their existence, but Hindu sages are agnostic about the type of experience they have.
The other option is that those who have spent their lives focusing on worldly things will pass into smoke and from there to the Moon. After that, they will be reborn in this world. This means that reincarnation is for those people who do not gain the knowledge of Brahman (Stevenson & Haberman, 1998, pp. 52-53).
Christian doctrine is, again, quite different. Christians believe that those who spend their lives believing in and serving God will spend the eternity in Heaven reunited with their ancestors. Those who are proud and reject God will spend the eternity in the flames of Hell with Satan.
A detailed description of the nature of the experience in Heaven seems to be lacking, and one might ask what kind of experience is good enough to be pleasant eternally (Stevenson & Haberman, 1998, p. 84). One explanation offered by Aquinas is that the eternal bliss of those in Heaven is caused by their ability to see the sufferings of those in Hell.
Thinking critically about these ideas, I find myself unable to give any evidence in support of any of the claims. It seems that there is no empirical grounding for any theory about afterlife, and I remain agnostic about it. What I might say is that for me, it seems very difficult to imagine any sort of experience for which I would like to last forever. Therefore, the whole concept of Heaven is problematic. I do not even need to mention how morally reprehensive and degrading I find the idea proposed by Aquinas.
Another difference related to the interpretation of human nature in these two religions is when it comes to the existence of free will. The Hindu scriptures make it explicit that the human activity is trapped within a long causal chain, which means that any human action is caused by some prior ones, and causes the next one (Stevenson & Haberman, 1998, p. 54).
However, the Christian doctrine is predicated upon the existence of free will, and theologians also use it to account for the problem of evil. The claim is that people are given free choice of whether they will accept God or not, and that decision is what ultimately determines their destiny.
The idea of free will is for me a notion which is very difficult to accept. It is hard to imagine a universe in which one could step out of the mechanistic causal chain of events. Such an idea would probably require the existence of an immaterial soul, for which we already said that it is quite unlikely.
Furthermore, considering the regular human experience carefully, I find that it is constructed in such a way that ideas and impulses just occur in the consciousness as a product of unconscious functioning of the mind. Which specific ideas and impulses will occur largely depends on the conditions within the organism.
In summary, the two religions I have discussed, namely Christianity and Hinduism, share some similar points, but also differ to a great extent in the way in which they interpret the origin of the universe and human nature.
Similar points are that: both religions claim that humans are of dual nature, which means that they have a material component – the body and an immaterial component – the soul; people are made of the same material as everything in the universe and that God created the world of phenomena out of the feeling of self-insufficiency.
As far as differences are concerned, Christianity holds that people need only love God to achieve salvation, while Hinduism claims that gaining knowledge of Brahman is the purpose of human life.
In Hinduism, death can lead to reincarnation or unity with Brahman depending on whether the person has achieved the knowledge of him, while Christians believe that Heaven is reserved for those who accept god and those who reject him will spend the eternity in Hell. Finally, the existence of free will is central to the Christian doctrine, while in Hinduism, it is believed that human actions are predetermined.
I have argued and provided evidence that humans are probably material entities and that they are indeed made out of same elements as other entities in the universe.
In addition, I have claimed that the Christian view of the purpose of human life is morally deficient, but I did not accept the Hindu view either. I have remained agnostic towards the description of post-death experience, and argued that there is no such thing as free will. In doing this, I have accepted the scientific approach, and did not address issues which cannot be proven or rejected.
Stevenson, L. F., & Haberman, D. L. (1998). Ten theories of human nature (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Wollack, E. (2010). WMAP- Age of the Universe. Retrieved from https://map.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_age.html
World Population and Religious Statistics. (2012). Web.