Brief OverviewHinduism is mankind's oldest spiritual declaration, the very fountainhead of faith on the planet. It emphasizes dharma (the right way of living) rather than a set of doctrines, and thus embraces diverse religious beliefs and practices. Hinduism has been called the "cradle of spirituality" and "the mother of all religions," partly because it has influenced virtually every major religion.
The early phase of the Hindu tradition in India is dated between 10,000 to 7,000 BCE. Yet, in spite of the fact that it first evolved more than 5,000 years ago, Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) is also very much a living tradition. And as such, Hindus are arguably the most intensely religious people on the earth. Today, Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world with approximately 1 billion adherents.
Based on the Timeless DharmaThe Hindu doctrines are based on Universal Principles which do not depend on a particular race or place. Hence it is called Sanatana Dharma (Universal Religion). Its uniqueness lies in veracity of experience & knowledge as opposed to dogma and beliefs. Its primary scriptures are the Vedas, the worlds most ancient scriptures. Hinduism is a peace loving and personal religion. It does not attempt to convert anyone.
Hinduism is not just a faith. It is the union of reason and intuition that cannot be defined but is only to be experienced. Evil and error are not ultimate. There is no Hell, for that means there is a place where God is not, and there are sins which exceed his love.— Dr S Radhakrishnan
For the millions of people who practice this dharma (religion), it is a way of life that encompasses all aspects of life including family, social life, sciences, politics, business, art, and health behaviors. The sacred scriptures contain instructions on these aspects of life and have a strong influence on art and drama. While the ascetic practices of yoga are a well-known aspect of Hinduism, family life is also considered a sacred duty. It guides people along paths that will ultimately lead to the atman (Innermost Self) and becoming one with Brahman (the Universal Consciousness).
Basic PrinciplesHindu Dharma recognizes that everyone is different and has a unique intellectual and spiritual outlook. Therefore, it allows people to develop and grow at their own pace by making different spiritual paths available to them. It allows various schools of thought under its broad principles. It also allows for freedom of worship so that individuals may be guided by their own spiritual experiences.
What can be said to be common to all Hindus is the concept in Dharma (duties and obligations), Samsara (reincarnation/rebirth), Karma ("actions", leading to a cause and effect relationship), and Moksha (liberation) of every ātman (the Innermost Self) through a variety of paths, such as Bhakti (devotion), Karma Yoga (action) and Jñāna (knowledge), and of course, belief in Īshvara / bhagavan (God).
According to Hindu sastras (scriptures), one's ignorance of the true nature of the ātman as one with Brahman is what traps one in the cycle of endless death or samsara. The term samsara refers to the process of birth and rebirth continuing for life after life. Samsara or the atman's transmigration through a cycle of birth and death, until it attains Moksha, is governed by Karma. The particular form and condition (pleasant or unpleasant) of rebirth are the result of karma, the law by which the consequences of actions within one life are carried over into the next and influence its character.
The philosophy of Karma lays forth the results of free-willed actions, which leave their imprint on the ātman or the Self. These actions determine the course of life and the life cycle for the ātman in its subsequent life. Virtuous actions take the ātman closer to the divine supreme and lead to a birth with higher-consciousness. Evil actions hinder this recognition of the divine supreme and the ātman takes lower forms of worldly life. All living existence, per Hindu Dharma, from vegetation to animals to mankind, is subject to the timeless dharma, which is the natural law.
Even Heaven (svarga or swarga) and lower spiritual worlds are temporary. Liberation from this material existence and cycle of birth and death, to join, reach or develop a relationship with the Brahman ("universal spirit"), is known as moksha, which is the ultimate goal of Hindus.
The other principles include the guru/chela dynamic, the divinity of the word AUM and the power of mantra (religious hymn), manifestations of the divine's spirit in all forms of existence; that is an understanding that the essential spark of the ātman / Brahman is in every living being, the concept that all living beings are divine.
Basic PracticesThe term, Hinduism is heterogeneous, as it consists of several schools of thought. There is variation in local practices and the worship of particular deities. However, there are central tenants that unify it as one tradition. The core of Hinduism is faith in Brahman, the underlying universal life force that encompasses and embodies existence which may be worshiped in personal forms such as Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti.
Most households have a shrine to a particular deity. Women conduct a household puja, the offering of fruit, raw rice, flowers, incense, and other items to the deity, on a regular basis. People may be invited to join puja on occasion, making it a communal event. After the food has been offered it is considered to have been spiritually consumed and blessed by the deity's power. It is redistributed as a way to share the deity's blessings.
Hinduism includes a variety of practices, primarily spiritual devotion (Bhakti Yoga), selfless service (Karma Yoga), knowledge and meditation (Jnana or Raja Yoga). These are described in the two principal texts on Yoga: The Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras. The Upanishads are also important as a philosophical foundation for these practices.
Ethical and Moral PrinciplesHinduism has 10 Yama (Vedic restraints) and 10 Niyama (Vedic practices). The Vedic restraints include: ahimsa (Non-Injury), satya (Truthfulness), asteya or nonstealing, brahmcharya (divine conduct), kshma (patience), dhriti (steadfastedness), daya (compassion), arjava (honesty), mitahara (moderate appetite) and saucha (purity).
The 10 Vedic practices include: hri (remorse), santosha (contentment), dana (giving), astikya (faith), Ishwara-pujana (worship), Siddhanta Shravana (scriptural listening), mati (cognition), vrata (sacred vows), japa (recitation), and tapas (austerity).
Hindu ScripturesThe divine scriptures of Hinduism include the Vedas, the Upvedas, the vedanga, the Smritis, the Darshan Shastras, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Itihas (Ramayana and Mahabharata), the Gita, the Bhagavatam and the writings of Jagadgurus, acharyas, and Seers. The vast collection of Hindu scriptures are a systematic line of teachings. They provide the guidelines for all kinds of people, having varying levels of purity of mind and receptivity for God, and lead them towards God Realization.
- The Srutis come from the Vedas, of divine origin and unchangeable. They encapsulate the greatest truths.
- The Smritis, referred to as the Dharma Shashtras, are of human composition. They govern the daily conduct of people, including the actions of the individual, the community, and the nation, and may change over time.
- The epics are those events or narration in which the philosophy of the Vedas is told. The most important epics are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
- The Puranas are the Hindu scriptures that convey the truths of the Vedas and the Dharma Shashtras in the form of tales. These stories form the basis of religious education for the common man.
- The agama record the doctrine for the worship of different deities, including Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti.
- The darsanas encompass the six schools of Hindu philosophy; they guide scholars.
The Spiritual InquiryHindu Dharma discusses every minute detail of the human Spirit and analyzes it. Hence it is a teaching tradition, not a preaching one. In its depth it is closer to Quantum physics than any other religion. It has no one Prophet who started it, rather it is the vision of age old rishis (seers) and Rishi-Kaas who spent lifetimes thinking about issues central to a Human life.
This whole process of spiritual inquiry can be summed up in a module of four questions;
- Who am I ?
- What am I doing here in this world?
- What do I do next?
- What is the nature of life?
Who am I ?This inquiry consists of investigating the true nature of the Self (jivatman). This also includes by default, the inquiry into the nature of the Absolute Godhead (Brahman) to which we, as spiritual beings have an intimate relationship. This will be further dealt with in a later chapter.
What am I doing here ?Once we have intellectually accepted that we are not what we think we are, we then turn our attention to the nature of the universe and our place in it. We investigate the nature of mundane reality, the origin of the universe and of living beings, and the inter-dependant relationship between various categories of animate and inanimate beings. We can then investigate the universal problem of unhappiness and the meaning of life and principally the subject of our duty (Dharma) towards other beings and the environment in which we live.
What do I do next?Once we have gained knowledge about these topics we then have to seriously consider what we are going to do with that knowledge, that is, how to apply it in our daily lives. What do we do about our own personal suffering and that of others? A theory of “everything” which does not lead to some form of self-transformation and practical, universal application is simply cognitive reverie.
What is the nature of birth and death?The fundamental premise of Hinduism is that birth and death are the two alternating phases in the seemingly endless cycle of transmigration. This cycle has been set in motion by ourselves in the distant past, and the ultimate goal of all spiritual practice is to end this cycle. The cessation of this cycle of transmigration is known as “liberation” (moksha or the “end of becoming” — nirvana).
For those who care to know it gives the methodology to teach, prescribes a lifestyle that helps us learn and allows immense opportunity to mature mentally. Anything born gets old and dies. Only in a human birth we can mature in a unique way. That ability is what makes us the higher species.
The Central ConceptsTo get a basic understanding of the central concepts of Hinduism, we need a basic change in thinking from the linear way of looking at everything in this Creation as we usually have been taught in the West, to a cyclical thinking. This way can bring about a much wiser, gentler outlook, as we will see.
Here is a quick explanation of the central concept of this vast and ancient tradition.
Dharma must guide our livingThe thought of dharma generates deep confidence in the Hindu mind in cosmic justice. This is reflected in the often-quoted maxims: “The righteous side will have the victory.”, “Truth only prevails, not falsehood.”, “Dharma kills if it is killed; dharma protects if it is protected.”, “The entire world rests on dharma.”
Dharma is the law that maintains the cosmic order as well as the individual and social order. Dharma sustains human life in harmony with nature. When we follow dharma, we are in conformity with the law that sustains the universe. Living can be harmonious only if we respect the Dharma and live without rubbing against it. So we cannot hope to feel no burn if we stick our hand into a fire! So too, when we hurt someone, we will get hurt, when we take someone else’s lands or money or life, eventually we will have the same pain come to us. So Dharma can be called righteousness too.
Karmas produce appropriate resultsHindus explains that God, who is all-loving and merciful, does not punish or reward anyone. He molds our destinies based upon our own thoughts and deeds. Every action of a person, in though, word, or deed, brings results, either good or bad, depending upon the moral quality of the action. Moral consequences of all actions are conserved by the Nature.
These are simply our actions that we perform which always produce appropriate results. These may themselves be limited by our previous actions to some extent. We seem to have no control on where or to whom we are born or what kind of a childhood we have. So much is given already. For example, born into a rich family or a poor family will shape our thinking accordingly. So the destiny we experience is itself a result of our Karmas done in other times.
Free will allows us to break out of given situations through our Karmas or actions. However, we must understand that we have our free will over our actions, but the results come from the Lord and are always appropriate to the action performed. So the incentive to do good is that we write our own destiny, not God. These results can be immediate or delayed, in this life or another. Since the results are not within our control we may results more than expected, same as expected, or less than expected. If we understand properly, we are able to take whatever comes with equanimity with the least disturbance to our minds. The more we recognize as God’s order the more calm and fearless we stay.
Bhagavaan or God is InfiniteThe Vedas depict Brahman as the Ultimate Reality, the Absolute or Paramātman (Universal Soul). Brahman is the indescribable, inexhaustible, incorporeal, omniscient, omnipresent, original, first, eternal, both transcendent and immanent, absolute infinite existence, and the ultimate principle who is without a beginning, without an end, who is hidden in all and who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe. Brahman (not to be confused with the deity Brahmā) is seen as a panentheistic Cosmic Spirit. The personality behind Brahman is known as Parabrahman (The superior Brahman). Brahman may be viewed as Nirguna Brahman (without personal attributes) or Saguna Brahman (with attributes).
Perhaps the best word in Hinduism to represent the concept of God is Īshvara (lit., the Supreme Lord). In Advaita Vedanta philosophy, Īshvara is simply the manifested form of Brahman upon the human mind. Thus according to Smarta views, the Divine can be with attributes, Saguna Brahman, and also be viewed with whatever attributes, (e.g., a female goddess) a devotee conceives. For the Hindus, Īshvara is full of innumerable auspicious qualities; He is omniscient, omnipotent, perfect, just, merciful, glorious, mysterious, and yet full of love. He is the Creator, the Ruler and the Destroyer of this universe. Some believe Him to be infinite and incorporeal. In Vaishnava and Shaiva, Saguna Brahman is viewed solely as Vishnu or Shiva — so their followers may attribute an anthropomorphic form to Īshvara. Īshvara is also called as Bhagavān. The Divine Power (or energy) of God is personified as female, or Shakti. However, God and the Divine-Energy are indivisible, unitary, and the same. The analogy is that fire represents the Divine and the actual heat Shakti.
Human life is our chance to seek unity with BrahmanAll atman (the Self) are evolving toward union with Brahman and will ultimately find Moksha, spiritual knowledge and liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Not a single atman will be eternally deprived of this attainment.
Each human being, regardless of religion, geographic region, gender, color or creed is in reality atman clothed in a physical body. Since atman is inherently pure and divine, every human being is potentially divine. In Hindu view, a man is not born a sinner, but becomes a victim of ignorance under the influence of cosmic ignorance, called Maya. Just as darkness quickly disappears upon the appearance of light, an individual’s delusion vanishes when he gains self-knowledge.
Hinduism explains that the atman (the Innermost Self) is eternally yearning for perfect, unlimited and everlasting happiness. But the atman is mistakenly searching for this happiness in the mayic world where one finds only transitory pleasures followed by disappointments.
Human life alone gives us a chance to know our true identity, which has its basis in the one true thing called Brahman. All else has a dependent reality because nothing except Brahman can exist on its own. Our relationship with God is like the wave in an ocean. The ocean exists with or without the waves, but the waves have no independent existence without the ocean. When the waves become enlightened they know they too are water and are liberated from the notions of limitedness. This is called Moksha or liberation, and can be achieved while living.
The aim of life is to 'know' BrahmanBrahman (Supreme Reality) cannot be 'known' in the usual sense of the word. Brahman is the Knower of everything. We call it 'realizing' God or God-Realization. This is beyond the manas (mind). It is a direct experience of God. This is the ultimate goal of life. Till we reach this goal, we will have to live again and again. Till we reach this goal, we have to undergo birth, death and again birth and so on. Every time we are born, we continue our journey towards the goal from where we left. So nothing is lost by death on this journey. When the goal is reached, there is no need for anymore death or birth. The person is said to have attained Immortality. Actually the person goes beyond all limitations. Even the basic limitations imposed by the concept of individuality and personality vanish.
There are intermediate milestones and targets set by Hindu Dharma. They are Dharma (righteousness), artha (wealth acquired by righteous means) and kama (quenching of desires within the limits of Dharma and Artha). As there is a scope for lot of misconception about these intermediate targets, there are several texts explaining them. These are intermediate targets and not ends. The ultimate aim is Moksha — freedom from limitations by God-Realization. Dharma, artha and kama should be stepping stones and thus means to the end, which is Moksha. But this does not mean that Artha and Kama are forbidden by Hinduism. According to Hindu Dharma, if people pursue and enjoy artha and kama within the boundaries of Dharma, they will naturally develop the maturity to enquire and aspire after Moksha in due course of time.
It is God who has become this Universe and everything in itWhatever is seen, dreamed or imagined are nothing but manifestations of God. God is beyond space, time, causation and all distinctions like gender, race, species, living/non-living and form/formless. Since He is beyond space, He is omnipresent. Since He is beyond time, He is eternal. Since He is beyond the concept of form, He is with form, without form, both and neither. Every form is His and yet He is formless and beyond the concept of form. Similarly with all attributes concievable by the mind.
Respect for this Creation leads to HarmonySo if we do understand that everything is God, even what we see as unpleasant or destructive at the micro, individual level, then a certain attitude comes out of this:
- Respect for all things and all people
- Naturally move to a harmonious living
- Ability to have a non-judgmental attitude
- A mind that does not get easily disturbed
- When in tough situations no feeling of being alone
- A mind that is not constantly blaming others for our situations
- Recognition that this Creation is an interconnected and interdependent entity backed by an all knowing, all powerful, conscious being that can be invoked
There are three eternal existencesThere are three eternal existences: atman (Inherent True Self), maya, and brahman (Supreme Reality). Atman is unlimited in number, infinitesimal in size, Divine in quality but eternally under the bondage of maya. Atman does not belong to maya or the mayic world. It has a natural and eternal relationship with God. Maya is a lifeless power of God having three qualities: sattvic (pious), rajas (selfish) and tamas (impious) that represent its existence when it is evolved into the form of the universe. The universe has two dimensions — material and celestial. The Divine dimension of God lies beyond the field of maya.
This is a temporal worldThe illusion of finding perfect happiness in the mayic (temporal) world is the cause of samsara (atman’s reincarnation). The atman, since uncountable lifetimes, has been taking birth into the 8.4 million species of life where it undergoes the consequences of actions (karmas). Perfect happiness is neither a feature of the mind nor a nature or quality of the mayic world. It can only be attained by God Realization.
Creation is cyclicalCreation is a continuous process. At all times there are both beginnings and ends. We are part of this process of creation and dissolution, in that way we too create, but human creation is somewhat different than God’s creation.
1. Hindu Dharma – A Simple Overview, By Renu S. Malhotra, Seed The World, Inc.
2. Hinduism for Beginners -- An concise introduction to the Eternal Path to Liberation, By Pandit Ram Sivan (Srirama Ramanuja Achari), Simha Publications