(U-WIRE) FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — University of Arkansas professor Subra Bhat gave a lecture Monday afternoon in the Union Theater titled "Hinduism 101," in which he explained how Hinduism fits the standard definition of a religion and defended the Indian caste system as part of the Hindu construct.
The lecture "started and ended with prayer with puja," said Ketan Chawla. Puja can be translated as worship.
Chawla, the treasurer of the Hindu Students Council, explained that the group decided to have this lecture to clear up "various misconceptions about Hinduism especially about multiple Gods" and also the fact that the "caste system is looked down upon."
The goal, Chawla said, was to provide "basic clarifications about Hinduism" and answers to questions that he commonly hears, such as asking "if we worship cows."
"India has one-fifth of the world's population, but Hinduism is not considered a religion," Bhat said. "It is just considered a way of life."
Hinduism meets the various criteria of the major world religions as he sees them including subscribing to a single, higher god, the presence of prophets, and having a sacred text Bhat said.
"Hinduism is a monotheistic principle expressed in polytheistic ways," Bhat said. "The goal of Hinduism is to find the absolute Truth, with a capital T."
Many students attended the lecture to learn more about the central beliefs of Hinduism, including freshman Kathryn Crabtree.
"I like to learn about different world religions, and I thought that [the lecture] would be interesting and informative," Crabtree said.
"[The speaker] covered a broad range of what Hinduism is," said Crabtree, a pre-nursing and Middle Eastern studies major.
Bhat also included points in his lecture to defend several aspects of Hinduism that he said have often been attacked by Westerners, such as the treatment of women and the case system.
"Hinduism is often criticized for making women second-class citizens," Bhat said, "but when foreigners attacked India, women were kept at home for their own safety, to keep them safe from the invaders."
In his explanation of the caste system, Bhat emphasized that "the caste system isn't based on birth; it's based on what you do.
"The division is based on karma, or action, and guna, or qualities, characteristics and tendencies," Bhat said. "No caste is inferior to any other.
"In modern India, the caste system is still there, but nobody is looked down upon because of one's caste," Bhat said. "Untouchability is non-existent, and it is illegal to discriminate based on caste."
Several Hindu students came to support the newly formed Hindu Students Council and to engage in dialogue about their own faith.
"I'm Hindu, but I'm interested in learning and hearing about my religion," said Arnab Mitra, a graduate student in physics.
"I thought that it was a good introduction to the religion," Mitra said, but added that one thing he wished was included in the lecture was an explanation on Hindu views of idolatry. "It is a common criticism, and people often misunderstand Hindu prayer to idols."
Students attended the lecture for different reasons.
"I had gone to India before, so I wanted to help digest my experience there," said Manuel Medina.
"This is the first time I've ever gotten to hear about Hinduism," he said.
Students interested in learning more about Hinduism and Hindu celebrations are invited to attend the Garba banquet, said Tanvi Chawdhary.
"Garba is basically an Indian festival of an event called Navratri. People usually dance with sticks in a circle and it is custom to have food first and then dance, then a short prayer," Chardhary said.
As the vice president of the HSC, Chawdhary has been planning the event with the club and is excited that "this is the first time we've ever been able to have Garba on campus."
Chawdhary encouraged students to come try Indian food. "It doesn't cost money, it's free for everyone," he said. "There will only be guaranteed food for the first 300 people who come."
Garba will be held at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 17 in the Union Ballroom, Chawdhary said.
By Claire Wilson Arkansas Traveler - PBS