I'm an American and a Christian, and I don't know a lot about it but I think Hinduism just seems really beautiful and intriguing. I've heard of Hindu Atheists and one person told me it's more a way of life, so I'm wondering if it's possible to be a Christian Hindu? And if so how, and where do I start learning about Hinduism ?
How and where do I start learning about Hinduism?
There's no straightforward answer to this question, as Hinduism or Sanātana Dharma or सनातन धर्म or eternal Righteousness or eternal order (word Dharma is non-translatable) is very vast. However I provide some basic introduction and you can decide on your own, where to start, after understanding basics.
As you might aware, all Hindu Scriptures are written, to be precise passed down through oral tradition through various generations in divine language called Sanskrit or Saṃskṛtam. (Actually it was other way round, Saṃskṛtam was derived from Vedas).
Most important scriptures for Hindus, though the (origin of) word Hindu is nowhere related to Sanātana Dharma, are Vedas. Vedas were heard by Rishis in deep tapasya (transcendental meditation). This is what Sri Swami Prabhavanada says in the book Spiritual heritage of India,
The authority of the Vedas does not depend upon anything external. They themselves are authority, being the knowledge of God. And, as we shall see later, their truth is verifiable by any spiritual aspirant in transcendental consciousness.
Unlike other scriptures, Vedas are completely verifiable in state of transcendental mediation. In present state (limited consciousness), we may or may not understand them completely. So, one must study Vedas under a knowledgeable Guru (preceptor).
Vedas are true for all times and so language of Vedas (Saṃskṛtam). Sanskrit or Veda Bhasha (language of Vedas) is language of attributes. It doesn't have proper nouns. Quoting from my answer:
Sanskrit is language of Attributes. It doesn't have proper nouns. Krishna is named for person who is "black". Shiva is named for a person who is "auspicious". But a person has many attributes. You can call a person by any of his attributes. But Supreme God or Parabrahma has infinite attributes. So, Parabrahma has infinite names . Unlike other languages, a Sanskrit name gives some info or qualities a person possess. So, if you come across a name "Shiva" in scripture, you should understand that person has an attribute "auspiciousness" besides other additional attributes.
Sanskrit has fixed Dhatus (Verb roots), by which you can analyze the meaning of word by yourself without help of any dictionary. You can even guess Sanskrit word for modern English words. So, Sanskrit has no need to evolve though there may be change in Syntax or Grammar.
An attribute can refer to multiple persons. Meaning of words in a Sanskrit sentence depends on context. Some foreign authors who translated our scriptures failed to derive meaning based on context and rather they translated literal meaning. Quoting from Blog by gurudev,
Take for instance the translations making round about people eating beef or killing the cow during the vedic period. The whole basis of this myth is translations of Sanskrit verses like the one which actually means “control your sense organs” which was translated as “kill the cow“, all just because the word used was go/gau can refer not only to cow, but also to sense organs in Sanskrit. So when taken out of context and translated using its most popular object, you end up with misinterpretations like these. Sanskrit translation can never be done by going word by word, the entire context should be used as the basis to understand the meaning. And there are multiple rules and hints to understand the context of words which we shall learn in the future lessons of this series.
You can learn more about basics of Sanskrit from this blog by Gurudev. So, it is always recommended to learn Hindu Scriptures under a Knowledgeable Guru. Since it is difficult to get Guru in USA, you can read Hindu Scriptures with commentaries of Knowedgeable Acharyas (Hindu Scholars). But, it's not impossible to get Guru., even in USA.
Terse Vedic verses were interpreted differently by different scholars (as I explained above, this is due to nature of Sanskrit language and our limited consciousness). The six Hindu schools of philosophy, based on interpretation of Vedas, are Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. Most of the Hindus now in India or worldwide, knowingly or unknowingly, follow Vedanta School.
Hindu Scriptures are divided primarily into two categories: Shruti (that which has to be heard) and Smriti (which has to remembered). Vedas come under Shruti whereas Ithihasas, Puranas and Dharma Sastras come under Smriti. There are other scriptures called Agamas. All rituals in Hindu temples are primarily based on Agamas but Agamas do have deep philosophy. Different Sholars classify Agamas differently. You can learn more about Agamas here.
Authors of Smriti are Rishis (seers), unlike Vedas (authorless). Smriti is derivative work (produced out of intellect) that is usually attributed to an author (Rishi). Ithihasas are epics. Ramayana and Mahabharata are two important ithisas and are accepted as true records of the events .
Ramayana talks about Journey of Lord/King Rama who was avatar of Lord Vishnu. Swami Prabhavanada in his book "Spiritual heritage of India" says,
The Ramayana (Life of Rama) is generally regarded as the first poetical work of purely human origin in the literature of India, and its traditional author, Valmiki, as the first Indian poet. The general style in which the poem is composed differs from that of the verse portions of the Vedas by its greater diffuseness, simplicity, and charm.
Though Ramayana is true event, Lord/King Rama's story also teaches us many morals and for many Hindus, Rama is an inspiration and embodiment of Dharma (Righteousness).
The other important epic is Mahabharata, which talks about kings of descendants of Bharata. The most popular Bhagavad Gita (song of God) is present in epic Mahabharata. Lord Krishna delivers Bhagavadgita to Arjuna at beginning of war, when Arjuna (Kuru Prince) was reluctant to participate in war. Lord Krishna says essence of Vedas to Arjuna and exhorts him to do his Dharma (duty). Bhagavadgita is like bible to Hindus, though they are other Gitas. Sri Krishna as Supreme Brahman taught this valuable knowledge to Arjuna.
(Note: Lord Krishna is not prophet. Sri Krishna is God Himself in Human form. God is both Sakara (with form) and Nirakara (without form), as mentioned in Brh. Up - 2.3.1 of Shukla YajurVeda).
Puranas are other important scriptures which talks about myriad topics ranging from Cosmology to Supreme truth. Some scholars consider them as history books while some consider the stories in Puranas as allegories. Puranas give importance to three dieties: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, whose duties are creation, preservation and destruction respectively. This is what Sri Swami Prabhavanada says:
The word purana literally means ancient, the name being applied to certain scriptures to mean 'that which lives from of old' or 'that which is ever new though old'.
K. S. Ramaswami, the Indian scholar, has described Puranas as: '. . . the Puranas are a vital portion of the scriptures of the Hindus. They are primarily an extension, amplification and illustration of the spiritual truths declared in the Vedas. Outsiders may call them legends like the works of fiction current today. Some insiders too may regard them as mere illustrative fictions or allegories, or as relating to yogic realities unconnected with the external material world. But the bulk of the Hindus and the main body of traditional opinion attribute to the Puranas a double character, viz. illustrative value and impressive actuality. They have largely moulded public life, belief and conduct in our land for thousands of years, and they must be fully utilized by us ifwe are to realize the truths of the Vedas. Herein lies their permanent and supreme value to us.'
Altogether there are eighteen Puranas, six devoted to Visnu, six to Brahma, and six to Siva. All of them are written in verse, and all are usually attributed to Vyasa, the reputed author of the Mahabharata and editor of the Vedas. Their date may safely be assigned to the somewhat uncertain Epic Period.
Next comes Dharma Sastras. Dharma Sastras are code of conducts. Sri Swami Prabhavananda describes Dharma Sastras as follows in his book "Spiritual heritage of India".
Since to the Hindu mind only the Vedas are wholly sacrosanct, it follows that the Smrtis at best possess but a secondary authority. They record civil laws, social obligations, and ceremonies performed at the birth of a child, during initiation into Vedic mantra, at marriage, and at the moment of death. They comprise, in short, the daily duties, usages, and customs to be observed by the several castes and by people in different stages of life; and their avowed purpose is to aid all men to attain the highest spiritual development. The extraordinary thing about these ceremonies, usages, and customs, for daily observance and for special occasions, as practised in every part of India, is their infinite variety and yet their substantial underlying unity. The variety is accounted for by the fact that they were given many different forms, each developing independently of the rest in a particular part of the country; their unity by their common source in the Vedic religion.
Some of these important Smriti (Dharma Sastras) are Manu Smriti, Yajnavalkya Smriti and Parashara Smriti.
You can learn more about Shruti and Smriti from here.
You can also read this answer to know more about Hindu Scriptures in detail.
You can read books mentioned in this answer to get Comprehensive idea about Hinduism,
Now, what scriptures to start solely depends on your interest. If you are interested in Yoga or meditation, you can study "Patanjali Yoga Sutras" (Aphorisms of Yoga School of thought). If you want to know Supreme truth by Knowledge , you can study Vedanta (end portion of Vedas) or Upanishads. If your interest is mythology (to be precise legends) with morals, epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are best suitable to you.
Personally I suggest you to read Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavadgita. You can start with Bhagavadagita, if you are interested in knowing essence of Hindu Philosophy.
Is it possible to be a Christian Hindu?
Hindu Scriptures don't mention anything about Christianity, though Bhavishya Purana mentions about Isha Putra (Son of God), Jesus. But Bhavishya Purana (Purana of future) is highly interpolated during Islamic and British invasions of Bharata Varsha (Indian Subcontinent). Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma has no particular ritual for conversion, as the word "Religion" itself is very new to Sanskrit or Indian Languages. All faiths of Indian Subcontinent were called as Dharmas in olden days, such as Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), Bauddha Dharma (Buddhism) and Jina Dharma (Jainism). All Dharmic faiths or philosphies were revealed after enlightement.
You can also read Can one be a Hindu that worships through Christ? for more information.
1) http://www.hindupedia.com can be a good starter
2) Remember many people think Hinduism is polytheistic, this is totally wrong. Hinduism is pluralistic. There are many strongly monotheistic sects, many henotheistic sects, very few polytheistic sects, atheistic sects too. All live happily as Hindu together worshipping/not worshipping God as per their conception, but following the same way of life. "Beleiving/Not beleiving" in personal God/impersonal god/Avatars is optional; main thing is follow Dharma, contribute to Univeral order Rta and achieve moksha. Now depending upon your needs/no-needs of type of concept of God , you can choose to believe in any sect - but goal remains same.
Goal of life: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puru%E1%B9%A3%C4%81rtha
3) Hinduism has six major philosophy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_philosophy
Atheism is an officially established one of the way to achieve moksha(enlightenment)
Since you specially mentioned atheism in hinduism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atheism_in_Hinduism
also sankhya philosophy of Hinduism is atheistic philosphy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samkhya
Sankhya was recommended by "krishna" himself in Bhagvad gita scripture. According to Gita, the result of SAmkhya (knowledge of Atman) & the devotional Yoga, both leads to Moskha.
BG 5.4 - "The fools, not the learned ones, speak of Sankhya (the path of Knowledge) and (Karma-) yoga as different. Any one who properly resorts to even one (of them) gets the result of both."
Now, Yoga philosophy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_(philosophy) is just sankhya + "optional God" (ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_(philosophy)#God_in_Yoga_school_of_Hinduism )
--> conclusion: Directly reading sankhya philosophy will be very difficult for you. Hence, I will suggest you to read and PRACTISE Yoga philosophy and remove the optional God from it to get sankhya. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_(philosophy)
The book which I will recommend for learning Yoga philosophy is Patanjali yoga sutra. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoga_Sutras_of_Patanjali
and just remember that Sankhya = Yoga - conception of God
( also remember, many people think that yoga only means physical excercises and meditation. But, That is just one part of yoga. There is a philosophical part of yoga too )
Following this yoga path will be sufficient for you for now.
Later, if you want to expand even further, then you will need to understand that Gyan Yoga, Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga, Kundalini yoga.
4) but, if from atheism if you mean not believing in 'personal God', but if later in life , you want to have faith in 'impersonal God', then that day has arrived you to jump into Advaita vedanta ( Non-dualism ) , the most prominent philosophy of hinduism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advaita_Vedanta Then you will have to read Swami vivekananda books, especially Raja yoga.
Before a Christian embarks on adopting Hinduism it is highly recommended he/she studies the irreconcilable differences between the 2, else it will end up "harming" both the traditions.
A person cannot be both a Hindu and a Christian (or any other Abrahamic faith). Theologically Christianity and Hinduism are in conflict for the following reasons:
Hinduism is not a faith based but "integrity" based, whereas in Christianity faith is essential
In Christianity, Jesus alone is a path to salvation, where as Hinduism has not such concept of salvation but of liberation.
In Christianity there is one "Son of God", where as in Hinduism Avatars (God in human form) descent again and again and again
In Christianity, there is one life and no reincarnation (related to salvation) where as in Hinduism there is reincarnation till liberation
In Christianity, no human can become "Jesus" but can aspire to be Jesus like, in Hinduism every being can become "God" in this life or the next life.
In Hinduism God can be both male and female, In Christianity God is male (although Mary is being elevated to a God but its still not on par with the male God)
In Christianity history of existence and life of Jesus is essential whereas in Hinduism the Guru/deity/god are not essential but their teaching which can be validated are.
The list is not exhaustive, but a small attempt to illustrate the differences. If a Christian truly adopts Hindu view he/she will have to overcome these differences. At some point that person will have to go through some cognitive dissonance.
Else it will be a superficial exercise for the Christian to adopt Hindu symbolism but underlying purpose is lost at best and distorted at worst.
Quite a few Christians are turning vegan adopted from Hinduism without realizing its primary purpose i.e. elevation of consciousness. Hindus have classified food into 3 main categories for this purpose.
Adoption of Yoga by its "distortion", Christian Yoga. Christian Yoga was formulated so as to make it acceptable to Christian Theology. Yoga as certain specific mantra and metaphysics which is required for the desired effect to happen. Christian Yoga has gotten rid of it all.
References (And highly recommended further reading / viewing as well)
"Being Diffeent" by Rajiv Malhotra https://www.amazon.com/Being-Different-Challenge-Western-Universalism/dp/9351160505
"Rajiv Malhotra in Conversation with Brooke Boon, Founder of 'Holy Yoga'" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFJFvcNogFU&t=5198s
"Holy War on the Yoga Mat?" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vuwA8PvFpY
"Discussion with Suzin Green, a Kali Worshipper & Yoga-based Life Coach" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vuwA8PvFpY