Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.
The three most important stories in the Hindu tradition are the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavat purana. The first two are classed as itihas, meaning ‘history’, the implication being that both these stories have historic bases. However, it is recognised that over time, some addition and subtraction to the narrative may have occurred. It is also recognised that some exaggerations would have crept into the narrative. The third story is classed as a purana meaning a legendary tale.
The Ramayana is considered sacred because it revolves around the life of the great Hindu personality Rama, who the Hindus revere as an incarnation of God on earth, an avatar. Rama represents idealism. Rama lived for higher values rather than property and possession. The story of his life has inspired millions of Hindus. The story travelled far into South East Asia where it continues to be revered by many Hindus as well as non-Hindus.
The Mahabharata is an epic with another sacred Hindu personality, Krishna, also an incarnation of God. He helped the righteous, the Pandavas, to defeat their unrighteous cousins called the Kauravas. However, it is more than a simple story of good over evil. Krishna brought religious principles into the public eye. He showed how these higher ideals can be achieved in people’s daily lives. He was the first personality to recognise the role of pluralism in the way one perceives and progresses in a spiritual journey.
The Bhagavat purana focuses mainly on the life and teachings of Krishna. It is religious narrative at its best. It manages to put across extremely subtle ideas of Hindu philosophy in a very accessible form, using stories and sub-stories. Sometimes philosophy and abstract ideas seem dry; narratives are important for making religious teachings vivid and digestible. The power of narrative can never be underestimated.
Hinduism, which is not apologetic about promoting the idea of God with form and attributes, takes full advantage of this by weaving very colourful stories of Gods and Goddesses and putting across subtle principles in an accessible form.
Stories of faith are subject to interpretation. The Hindu narrative has a habit of evolving to take into account the needs of different times. Each narrative will have multiple layers of meaning invoked through plots and sub-plots dealing with a variety of social and ethical issues. Exaggeration too would have crept into some of these stories and the devotees are warned to decide for themselves what aspects to accept as literal truth and what aspects as pure narration. However, there are certain key morals which these stories put across, and it is for us to inculcate them and put them into practice. Narratives are not given the same status as the scriptures of authority like the Vedas. Narratives are recognised as ‘man-made’ instruments to make abstract spiritual ideas accessible to the lay person.
These stories give vivid examples of how to translate religious ideals into practice. They promote ethical values for the benefit of the individual and the greater society.
The key symbols of Hinduism are aum, the swastika, and the lotus flower.
Om is the sound heard in deep meditation by Hindu sages and seers. It is therefore considered to be the most appropriate name for God. The Hindu mystics claim that it is from this primordial sound, called nada-brahman, that the universe was created.
The swastika is a symbol for good luck. It has four bent arms pointing in four directions. It symbolises drawing in good luck from the four corners of the world. The swastika is visible in Hindu temples and homes as a symbol of auspiciousness.
The lotus flower has a special place in Hinduism. This flower blooms in muddy waters and yet comes out pure and pristine. This is symbolic of spirituality manifesting and blossoming in a mundane world. Just as the lotus flower maintains its purity, though it springs in muddy surroundings, the spirit is not tainted when it manifests in the material world.
The Sanskrit term prati means going towards. From this root is derived the word pratik which means a symbol that leads us to God. This clarifies the important role played by religious symbols – they are relative expressions of the absolute. Symbols also give identity to the practitioners. Some symbols are generic to all Hindus while some symbols identify specific sectarian movements in Hinduism.
Hinduism recognises that all aesthetic expressions invoke spirituality in a non-religious format. Hence it is very comfortable in using art, music, dance, drama, poetry and literature as a way of invoking the idea of transcendence in religion. The copious use of the lotus flower in images of various deities serves to remind the devotee to remain detached from the world. The swastika is sometimes painted on the palms of deities giving blessings, invoking the idea of auspiciousness synonymous with the forms of deities. The Aum or Om symbol is also used as an art form as well as a representation of spirit in sound. Om is chanted at the start of most hymns and prayers.
Hindus are not apologetic about using images to portray God with form. Hindus do not worship idols or objects, they use idols to worship God. Hinduism has freedom to worship God with attributes (like in the Abrahamic tradition) and with form. Hindus take advantage of the latter freedom to depict God in a variety of colourful forms. Apart from images Hindus use symbols like Om, or Swastika or the lotus flower. Om apart from being a symbol is also a sound. So the use of sight and sound are invoked when using this symbol. Om is claimed to be the sound heard in deep meditation, hence considered appropriate to represent God. Om is chanted during religious ceremonies as a way of drawing our minds to God.
Narratives: As Hinduism is comfortable in relating to God with form and attributes it allows this religion full freedom to come up with very colourful narratives involving a whole range of Gods and Goddesses. Subtle ideas are more accessible through a story format. Hinduism makes ample use of stories, parables and metaphors. Despite all this, the limitations of all such symbolic gestures or narratives is fully recognised in Hinduism. The Kathopanishad boldly declares: No scripture, is capable of capturing the essence of the Spirit.
Architecture: a purpose-built temple has several features that reflect their character as the abode of God on earth. Traditionally the temple has a shikhara or steeple which draws the eye upwards, a way of symbolically drawing us to think of higher things. The entrance to a temple is called the gopuram and is one of the most attractive parts of the temple as it is meant to draw the devotee into the premises. Like the living room in a house, there is an inner chamber called a garbha-griha or ‘womb chamber’ in which resides the predominant deity of the temple. There is space around the garbha-griha for devotees to circumambulate the central deity as a form of worship. Images of other deities may also be housed along the walls of the temple.
Private worship takes place in most Hindu home either at dusk or dawn. Communal worship takes place in a temple called the mandir. The mandir is regarded as the home of God on earth hence it is held in high esteem. The temple may be dedicated to a particular deity or form of God being worshipped by a particular sectarian group.
How people worship: Hinduism is comfortable with the idea of God having a form and attributes. Hence the image of a central deity becomes the centre of attraction. Devotees throng to the temple to catch sight of the deity being worshipped. This is called darshan (literally meaning catching sight of). Hinduism is not apologetic about worshipping God through images. They say that as long as we operate in the field of the finite we need finite tools to relate to the infinite God. These images are treated as living Gods; they are bathed, clothed, garlanded and offered food
Every ritual in Hinduism like worship or religious ceremonies or going on pilgrimage fulfils five functions:
1. it acts as a reminder of higher things;
2. it encourages discipline;
3. it acts as a symbolic gesture;
4. it gives identity;
5. the law of karma promises that all dedicated activities including religious ones are bound to produce beneficial results for the devotee.
Rituals are not mandatory. Hinduism offers flexibility to the individuals in what ritual he or she wishes to carry out.
The principle purpose of the temple is to be a place of worship but it also fulfils many other roles for its community. It becomes the place to carry out religious ceremonies like marriage or a place to celebrate religious festivals. It is also a place where religious leaders can address the congregation. Many temples are a hive of activity encouraging social services like looking after the elderly or the very young. Many temples hold classes teaching languages, dance, art, music and religion to the youngsters in its community.
Pilgrimage is called yatra (meaning a spiritual journey). Places of pilgrimage are chosen because of their geographic significance (like the Himalayas or the holy river Ganges), or their historic and mythological importance (a holy personality may be associated with that place). The key places of pilgrimage are: Varanasi which is on the bank of the holy river Ganges. It is considered to be the abode of Shiva one of the principle deities of Hinduism. Most Hindu religious teachers have either lived or preached in Varanasi. Vrindavan is another popular place of pilgrimage because it is associated with the life of Krishna another popular deity in the Hindu tradition. It is on the bank of the holy river Yamuna. Ayodhya is a place of pilgrimage on the bank of the river Sarayu and is associated with the life of Rama a popular deity in Hinduism.
Reducing distance between humanity and God: the places of pilgrimage are called tirtha (meaning a bridge to cross over to a spiritual plane). The process of going on a pilgrimage is seen as a spiritual journey. One hopes to visit the temples dedicated to the central deity associated with that place and catch sight (darshan) of the deity. The devotee gets a chance to meet holy people who live at these places of pilgrimage and may spend time there carrying out spiritual austerities. Some decide to spend the rest of their lives at these places, hoping that they will reach God when they pass on.
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