Exploring some of the ultimate questions that confront humanity, and responding imaginatively to them;
The ups, downs and meaning(s) of life’s journey.
Hindus who like to think of God as a personality, experience awe and wonder at God’s creation which is so intricate and well balanced. They express their gratitude and praise by performing various rituals such as the puja or worship ceremony, fasting, celebrating festivals or going on pilgrimage. They accept all the pleasure and suffering they experience as the play or leela of God, as a way to deal with the human condition.
Those Hindus who treat God as an Ultimate Reality which underpins the universe, express awe and wonder differently; they treat everything as a manifestation or reflection of spirit. Worship here does not involve sitting in front of an image, but by carrying out service or seva for the good of all. They treat both pleasure and pain as forms of bondage from which all of us need to break free.
The vast majority of Hindus like to think of God as a personality, and collectively express their religious inclinations and feelings through various rites and rituals. They practise values such as respect and reverence for all life, and promote family values and care for the community.
The way in which these spiritual feelings link with questions of value is through reverence for life, and culminates in a disciplined and focused life. Treating the whole world as a manifestation of spirit, charges it with great potency; reverence for life arises naturally from such a dynamic teaching. It is believed that in order to cope with the difficulties in our lives, it is important to pay a great deal of importance to character building. It is the only thing that comes with us after we die, and determines the nature of our future life. The belief in reincarnation therefore ensures that Hindus try to establish a stable character.
Religious experiences are the only true proof of God for Hindus. There are hundreds of cases of people finding God throughout history, and all indicate the possibility of a higher reality. However, it is only when people are able to experience God for themselves that they become certain of the existence of God. Faith is not the conclusion but the starting point in spiritual progress. Spiritual progress according to Hinduism can be likened to science: you start with a hypothesis, and then try the experiment and try to prove the existence of God for yourselves.
Spiritual experience is the culmination of religious practices and behaviour. Depending on the individual’s particular approach to God, these religious practices differ. For a person who believes in God with form, religious practice constitutes carrying out worship and adoration of a chosen deity. It involves being a good human being and treating others with reverence, since God has given people the responsibility to look after all around them.
A person who believes in God as a principle rather than a personality views the whole of creation as a manifestation of God. Their religious practice constitutes service to humanity, called seva. This also requires the individual to revere and respect everyone and everything around them, not because it is a responsibility, but because it is only natural.
Dharma, the equivalent to the term for ‘religion’ in Hinduism, is defined as enquiring into the essential nature of the universe and ourselves. The fundamental questions of life revolve around the discovery of what is the essential nature of the universe; what is essential human nature and people are linked. Hindu theologies explore different ways of linking man, God and the universe.
The Ultimate, by its definition, will resist all attempts at articulation. If it were possible to get our linguistic or intellectual faculties around the concept of the ultimate, the very process would compromise the potency of the ultimate. Since ancient times it was recognised that all such attempts are doomed to failure, not because spirituality is a woolly thing, but because it is far too potent to be captured through any articulation. Hence the Kathopanishad declared ‘This ultimate cannot be captured by any linguistic articulation, nor by intellectual gymnastics.
What is me? Like the ancient Greeks, the Hindus declare know thyself first before attempting to make sense of God or the universe. It is important to check on the validity and the capacity of the subject before attempting to answer deeper questions about the nature of reality. This inner search of the Hindus revealed a jackpot. Human’s essential nature is not the body nor the mind that they inhabit, but the spirit that percolates through the mind and body complex. This idea is encapsulated in the term Atman or spirit as a person’s essential nature. Because Atman is essentially the spirit, it has the power to validate God in the most personal and intense experiential level. Because humans are a chip off the old block they possess the capacity of validating or experiencing God. When people view God using human goggles they inevitably perceive God as a super-personality. This is what monotheistic religions do.
The ideas of transcendence and immanence are not only visible in religions but in all disciplined fields of human endeavour. These ideas are visible in arts, music, dance, drama, poetry, literature and more recently at the heat of physical sciences. The old philosophic problem of ‘distinguishing between being and becoming’ resurfaces in the guise of transcendence and immanence in many fields. ‘Being’ remains crucially invisible and cannot be captured through its manifestation or within the process of becoming. The Ultimate Reality is therefore transcendent as well as immanent, encompassing the macrocosm as well as the microcosm. On the issue of transcendence the Kathopnishad declares: Spirit sits at the heart of the infinitesimal as well as the infinite.
The response to suffering: A major religion sprang out of Hinduism just to address the issue of suffering – this religion is Buddhism. It did not seek the resolution through the concept of a personal God nor through eschatology. It offered a resolution to the issue of suffering here and now without reference to a God. Esoteric Hinduism offers a similar response to the issue of suffering. We are essentially a spiritual being, the process of expressing ourselves through the body and mind comes at a price and the price is both physical and mental suffering. As Ramakrishna, a recent prophet of Hinduism exemplified, physical suffering is the tax we pay for having a body. Physical suffering is just the self-defence mechanism kicking in to make sure people continue to live in a body. In the same way mental suffering arises because people are looking for fulfilment in a non-spiritual plane. Hindus reconcile the idea of God with suffering by adopting two approaches: we have to live with both pleasure and pain as the leela or play of God. The second approach says that pleasure cannot exist without pain; they are both relative concepts defined by each other. The resolution to the human condition lies in transcending both pleasure and pain, both are forms of bondage. This bondage is called maya. The aim of human life should be to break free from the misconception that people are the body and mind and re-identify themselves with the spirit.
Hinduism recognises that these approaches do not remove suffering. At best they allow people to live with suffering and treat it as a prod forcing them to make spiritual progress.
In Hinduism, spirituality is the underpinning to everything, including the universe we experience. The theories of Evolution or the Big Bang sit well with Hindu theology which is in broad agreement with these scientific discoveries. What people discover at the heart of physical science as the quantum phenomenon, talks of a non-material underpinning to the universe. Neuroscience struggles with the concept of consciousness, the resolution may lie in equating it with the spirit rather than a brain function.
Hinduism recognises that social and psychological aspects will colour the way people view or approach ideas of spirituality. It is inevitable that our mental make-up and social background will colour the way we relate to abstract concepts of spirituality. Nevertheless Hinduism insists that religions are not social or psychological inventions or ploys but discoveries that reflect the nature of reality.
Scientists such as Paul Dirac or Einstein or Neils Bohr knew that what we call the scientific enterprise has a long way to progress. The ability humans possess to make sense of the world was seen by them as the most mysterious phenomenon. Science that does not take into account the contribution of humans’ inherent powers of comprehension in their world view can never succeed in producing a coherent theory of everything. Scientists who are humbled by their discoveries, quite often feel comfortable with the broader ideas of spirituality.
Religious teachings infringing on the integrity of scientific discoveries risk losing their credibility. When religious teachings challenge theories of evolution or Big Bang in favour of creation theories, they risk being viewed as irrational and irrelevant. An ability to interpret some religious narratives as allegorical is necessary to ensure that all other religious teachings do not get automatically rejected.
Wittgenstein recognised the contextual nature of language (including religious language) and allowed for a variety of different world-views to coexist, all existing in their own self-contained worlds. This was unfortunate because it allowed religious teachings to claim immunity from rational inquiry. This has resulted in a schizophrenic world. When one thinks of religions one has to switch off one’s scientific world view and vice versa. This state of affairs can no longer be put aside under the guise of ‘variation of linguistic interpretation.’
Both science and religion attempt to discover the underlying nature of reality but have different starting points, one empirical, the other spiritual. However, because both disciplines are working towards the same discovery, it is only natural that the two should eventually coalesce. Hence people find the discovery in modern physics that the world is essentially not made of matter but of something which is non-material. This ties in with the teachings about Brahman in Hinduism. People find the difficulty the biological sciences have in pinning down the nature of consciousness, and find it is defined as Atman in ancient Hindu teachings.
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