Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
Hindus believe that the underpinning to this world is essentially the spirit defined as Brahman. Hindus believe that this spirit manifests itself as the universe and becomes more visible as living things. The most transparent manifestation of the spirit is men and women. Our essential nature as the spirit is defined as Atman. Religion or Dharma in the Hindu tradition is an enterprise searching for that which holds everything together. Dharma is not a search for God but a search for unity in diversity and that is discovered as the spirit. The idea of ahimsa or the principle of non-violence springs up naturally through this Hindu discovery of unity in diversity because it the same spirit that manifests itself as people and other living things, hence hurting others amounts to hurting ourselves. That is forbidden by the injunction of ahimsa. Hindus also believe in samsara or reincarnation, the cycle of rebirth. This cycle only ends when an individual discovers his or her essential nature as the spirit. This is called moksha, literally meaning destruction of delusion about our true nature. Another key belief inextricably linked to the theory of reincarnation is the law of karma which is the law of causation on personal terms. It simply states that what people set into motion has a habit of catching up with them. People have to bear the consequences of what they do if not in this life then in the next life.
Spiritual knowledge was acquired through meditation. Those individuals who succeeded and came face to face with spiritual truths were called rishis (a Sanskrit term derived from the root ‘drish’ meaning to see or experience). For perhaps a few thousand years these teachings were passed on orally. This material was written down about three thousand years ago and became the scriptures of authority of the Hindus. These texts are classed as shrutis, or books of spiritual knowledge and are called the Vedas from the root Vid which means to know.
Dharma is practised by manifesting the divinity that lies within through work (karma), worship (bhakti), psychic control (yoga) or knowledge (jnana). This has to be achieved by mastering nature both internal and external. Living righteously, going to temples, worshipping or carrying out rituals, all such activities are seen as valid activities for manifesting the divine in daily life.
The Rig Veda declares: Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti. “The same ultimate perceived and approached differently by different prophets.” This is a declaration of pluralism. It is not a statement of showing respect for other religions but accepting that there can be many ways of perceiving and manifesting spirituality. Mature Hinduism is at ease with teachings of other religions both theistic as well as non-theistic. It also acknowledges that spiritual progress can be made in a non-religious mode through other human pursuits like arts and sciences.
Almost all Hindu movements embrace the idea of pluralism. Different sectarian movements are seen as different pathways promoted by different spiritual figureheads for making spiritual progress. These movements co-exist in a spirit of harmony. The three broad sectarian movements are Vaishnavites, those who relate to the idea of God as Vishnu or his incarnations Rama and Krishna. Shaivites who think of God-head as Shiva and Shaktas, those Hindus who believe in the ultimate reality as mother goddess called Shakti.
Spirituality as underpinning to everything including ourselves is promoted mainly in a theistic mode. Hence building relationship with God is seen as the central aim of the Hindu religion. This relationship is mostly developed through work (karma) and worship (puja). Selfless work or living for the benefit of others in the family and the rest of society becomes a way of acknowledging and manifesting the divinity within all. Devotion to a personal God is seen as a powerful tool for relating to the spirit within. Family values fostered through the spirit of living for others produces cohesion in families and societies. Religious pluralism holds the key to fostering genuine harmony between people of different or no-faith backgrounds.
The authority of the Hindu religion lies with numerous prophets and saints over the ages. These personalities claim first-hand experience of God or the Spirit. The generic title given to these personalities is rishis (derived from the Sankrit word drish which means to see).
God vision or spiritual experience is the key criterion for becoming a prophet of Hinduism. Authority is not achieved through book learning or intellectual acumen, but only through first-hand experience (Swanubhuti) of God. This distinctive feature of Hinduism allows teaching space to evolve. The message of spirituality can be revived and refreshed in all ages through contemporary personalities. Religious prescriptions are therefore open to revision. Initially the wisdom these enlightened souls offered was passed on orally from one generation to another before being written down. This material forms the basis of scriptures of authority called the Vedas (derived from the Sanskrit word Vid which means to know) the books of knowledge. Even though these texts are excellent depositories of spiritual knowledge they are humble in their claims. One of the key verses declares, ‘None of these scriptures are capable of capturing the spirit.’ There are many modern proponents of Hinduism. At the head of each sectarian movement we hope to find an enlightened personality. Some ancient personalities like Rama or Krishna are difficult to date historically but then Hinduism also has a host of contemporary personalities.
Spiritual teachers are known as Swamis or Gurus. Swami literally means one who has mastered himself thereby gaining spiritual knowledge. He is usually a monk. Guru means one who has the power to remove ignorance. Hindus have the freedom to choose a spiritual guide for themselves. The guide may be ancient or modern, someone who may or may not be the head of a sectarian movement.
Contemporary Gurus or Swamis may impart their knowledge through darshan meaning personal meetings, or through discourses. Spiritual aspirants are advised to follow the dictum of: pranam – exhibiting a reverential attitude towards the teacher, prashna, meaning inquiring through questions, and seva – looking after the teacher. Some teachers are said to come with immense power. They are called jagatguru meaning world teacher. They have the power of infusing spirituality not only in a sectarian setting but on a national or an international scale.
Individuals are given the choice of evaluating who they consider to be an authoritative figure and fit to guide them. Hindu religion recognises that spiritual progress takes place in stages. There is room from the crudest to the most sophisticated approach for spiritual growth. To an extent the individual’s own stage of spiritual growth is revealed by the guru or sectarian movement he or she relates to. Any one approach is not seen as better than another because all these approaches cater for different needs in a spiritually diverse society.
The founders of Hinduism are given the generic title of rishis or ‘seers’ of God. Spiritual knowledge comes from the spiritual experiences of these rishis. Hundreds of such seers, ancient and modern, have contributed towards reviving and refreshing the message of spirituality throughout the ages. These teachings are contained in scriptures called the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Many ancient rishis chose not to reveal their identity, and hid behind the generic title of Vyasa, meaning ‘compiler’, to allow their teachings to merge naturally with existing teachings.
Hinduism continues to produce spiritual giants in contemporary times. In the last two centuries we have:
Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) the personification of Pluralism. He held that religions are not contradictory but complementary and all of them lead to the same goal. He said: “As many faiths, so many paths.”
Swami Vivekananda (1886-1902) represents the role of rationality in religion. “Religion cannot be a matter of belief; it has to be a matter of first hand experience.” He travelled extensively in the West. He represents the contemporary, comprehensive and comprehensible face of Hinduism.
Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) focused on discovering God within as our essential Self. His central investigation is into the question ‘Who am I?’ He recommends renunciation and nonattachment.
Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) was a mystic of modern times and author of the famous text, Autobiography of a Yogi.
Anandamayi Ma (1896-1982) was the modern female proponent of Hinduism. As a child she showed early signs of divinity that were observed by her parents and friends. As her reputation grew, she travelled extensively all over India encouraging her devotees to serve others without complaining. She believed that all religions joined into the same path: the realisation of the Supreme.
All of these religious figures promote the message of striving for higher spiritual ideals over secular living. People must live in the world without becoming materialistic. Devoting their lives for making spiritual progress, and eventually experiencing God for themselves, is the aim of human life. Truly spiritual living is service to humanity, and is the basis of morality.
These recent figures show by example how to live in the world without becoming materialistic, and how to devote lives to spiritual progress. For example, Sri Ramakrishna, although a man of God realisation, was married. He treated his wife as the Mother Goddess, and showed every householder the ideal relationship between a husband and wife.
All of these personalities not only use faith to provide meaning to their lives, but insist on first-hand experience of God. This is what makes them wonderful sources of inspiration and spiritual knowledge. Faith is only the start of a religious journey; it is first-hand realisation that is its conclusion. ‘Stop not till the goal is reached,’ remarked Swami Vivekananda. Moral living is the discipline required to succeed in this journey.
Initially these personalities talk of a stirring within which forced them to look for deeper insight into reality. Some were helped by other enlightened souls; some became their own teachers, some talked about the grace of God or placed greater emphasis on personal effort.
The generic title given to people with authority in Hinduism is Rishi (from the Sanskrit drish meaning one who sees or experiences God). Rishis can be ancient or modern, man or woman, young or old. Many of these personalities chose to remain anonymous and hid behind a generic name Vyasa or ‘compiler’. Avatar (literally meaning one who descends) is a title reserved for those personalities who are considered to be incarnation of God on earth. The most famous ancient avatars are Rama, Krishna and Buddha. Most sectarian movements will claim that the head of their movement to be an Avatar. Guru (meaning one who removes ignorance) is a title reserved for spiritual teacher. Swami is the title given to a monk who can also act as a teacher. Acharya is a title reserved for those Gurus who teach by example.
There is a vast array of colourful stories surrounding ancient rishis and avatars. With every telling there will be a tendency for some parts to be added and some parts to be taken out to take into account the changing needs of society. There will be a tendency for exaggerations and supernatural explanations to become incorporated in the narrative. Hinduism can draw on the teachings of modern rishis where properly documented material is available.
Hinduism has always recognised the contextual element in religious teachings. It recognises that every spiritual personality will offer teachings that are most suited to the needs of a society at that period in history. Hence the teachings of every prophet will reflect a contextual dimension. Recognising the contextual elements in every religious teaching is essential if we wish to reconcile different religious world-views.
Each proponent of religion will invoke and infuse spiritual teaching that fits the need of that society. The ethical and moral dimension of their teachings will necessarily reflect this need and limitation.
Though the teachings and lifestyles of ancient prophets may not necessarily be suited to the needs of modern humans, they are expressions of spiritual aspirations of different ages.
These ancient and modern figures are wonderful role models for the rest of society. They show the need to strive for higher aspirations and experience God personally. A recent day example is Ramana Maharshi. (1879-1950). He epitomised humility and peace, and experienced God as his essential nature. He urged people to seek God through self-enquiry.
Swami Ramdas who viewed God as a personality, Rama, accepted that whatever happened to him, good or bad, was the will of Rama, and taught that people must become an instrument in the hands of God, thereby eliminating the ego. Such God-realised personalities tell people how to make spiritual progress while living in the midst of materialism. They tell humans to live with a spirit of detachment from the world, treating everything as their own but knowing in their hearts that in reality it is all transient. The only reality is God.
Recent figures such as Swami Ramdas (1884-1963) are living example of how faith can destroy the ego, and how God realisation is possible.
Ramakrishna (1836-1886) is another wonderful example of a proponent of Hinduism. He taught that faith or love in God is not something that has to be cultivated; it springs up naturally when one overcomes worldly desires.
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