Exploring the impact of religions and beliefs on how people live their lives;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
Belief in God is considered to be a wonderful starting point in the spiritual journey. Hindu philosophy insists that belief is a mere starting point and should not be mistaken for the destination. Accept the teachings of the scriptures (shruti); test and translate them in your lives (yukti); and this is expected to culminate in first-hand experience of God – swanubhuti.
Many Hindus like to think of God as a super personality. Ingrained in the Hindu psyche is the recognition that as all individuals are different, the way in which each person perceives God will necessarily be different. People impose their own human limitations on this Ultimate Reality so that they can more easily relate to Him. This is the reason for the copious images of God in Hinduism. It is not a polytheistic religion that believes in many almighty Gods, but a pluralistic religion that recognises that the same one Ultimate can be viewed in a variety of different ways.
Recognition that all religions are equally valid pathways to the same Ultimate is one Hindu answer to many of the tensions in the world today. Pluralism is not relativism; it does not suggest that there are plural ultimates, but plural ways to the same Ultimate. God is infinite, and there are an infinite number of ways to reach God.
It may seem as if pluralism is just a way of appeasing all faiths to keep the peace without actually being true. However, Hindus point to a modern-day example to show the validity of different religions: Ramakrishna was able to experience God through a variety of ways in Hinduism, but also found God through other religions such as Christianity and Islam. For him, God-realisation was not the monopoly of any particular faith. He promoted the universality of spirituality, and individuality in a seeker’s approach to God.
The Vedas are the scriptures of authority in Hinduism. The word Veda is derived from the Sanskrit term Vid which means to know. Vedas are books of spiritual knowledge. They contain the utterances of the seers of Hinduism called Rishis who experienced spiritual truths and expressed them as the Vedas. The end portion of the Vedas contains the Upanishads which are the gems of Hindu philosophy. There are eleven main Upanishads. They offer a variety of ideas relating to spirituality. They are poetic expressions about the nature of reality as the spirit (Brahman); the essential nature as the spirit (Atman) and discuss the relationship between Atman and Brahman.
The Bhagavad Gita literally means ‘song of the divine’, and is a synthesis of the Upanishadic teachings. It reconciles a variety of ideas expressed in different Upanishads and offers the prescription of how to bring religion into our daily lives. It also incorporates the idea of pluralism. It accepts that spiritual progress can be made in a variety of different modes.
Sanskrit (literally meaning sophisticated) is considered to be the mother of many Indo European languages. It is the language of the scriptures of Hinduism. Many hymns found in the early portion of the Vedas called Samhitas are recited at religious ceremonies like worship, rites of passage, or at the time of celebrating festivals.
Historicity of texts. The Vedas were passed on as an oral tradition for perhaps a thousand years before being written down in ancient Sanskrit in around 1000BC.
Hinduism is a living evolving religion; the teachings of modern seers are seen as being as valid as the teachings of the ancient texts. In Hinduism therefore there is less of a fixation on establishing the historicity of some of these texts.
Hinduism has produced spiritual giants in all ages. The prescription they offer for religious living displaces earlier books of codes of conduct. For example the Manusmriti is not used in any Hindu home while the teaching of more recent proponents of Hinduism, such as the Shiksapatri used by the devotees of the Swaminarayan movement, become texts of authority for most Hindus.
The Bhagavad Gita can be taken as an allegory of the human condition. Everyone is Arjuna, faced with the dilemma of discriminating between what is right and wrong. The mind is the battlefield, riddled with potential conflict and uncertainty. Only when people recognise their true self as divine, does this confusion and doubt fall away.
It is not just the Bhagavad Gita that contains allegories and metaphors, but all religious texts. Since ancient times, it has been recognised that a greater depth of understanding can be reached by using figurative language. Its analysis gives the individual a sense of discovery and realisation of incredibly potent and subtle teachings.
Philosophic vs theological interpretation of texts: Hinduism is open to challenges of rationality, so philosophic interpretations are given higher validity. As Shankara, a figure of authority in Hinduism, pointed out, people have to test the teachings of shruti – meaning theological texts, by yukti, meaning rational interpretation, and only accept them if they are borne out by swanubhuti – first-hand personal experience.
Hindus believe that people are essentially spiritual beings caught on a material journey. The journey ends when they re-discover our essential nature as one with God. This is called moksha (meaning the end of delusion) Hindus believe in reincarnation (samsara). Death is viewed as a comma rather than a full stop. Every activity and effort people have made in this journey will bear fruit in this or their next life. Hindus see reincarnation as a fairer system and in a unique manner it gives direction in life and comfort in death.
Rites of passage are called samskaras and mark entry into different stages of life. Hindus believe there are sixteen samskaras but today only a few are carried out. A sacred fire called a havan is lit at most of the ceremonials. Worship is carried out through fire which is called the eternal witness to the ritual.
The namakarana or naming ceremony is one of the first rites of passage performed for a child. The paternal aunt has the privilege of choosing a name starting with a letter chosen from an astrological chart. The selected name is then whispered into the child’s ear or written in honey on the child’s tongue.
The upanayana or sacred thread ceremony marks a child’s entry into student life. It involves investing the child with a sacred thread which consists of three strands, representing the three responsibilities he must now bear towards his parents, his teachers and to God. The child is now committed to study and acquiring life skills. He must learn to show respect for his teachers and parents and lead a celibate lifestyle during these formative years.
The vivah or marriage ceremony takes place when the person has completed his studies and begins earning money and is ready to start a family. One of the most important parts of the marriage ceremony is the bride and groom taking seven steps together, called saptapadi. Each step symbolises an aspiration for married life. They include health, wealth, happiness, progeny and lifelong friendship. Marriage vows require the couple to promise to look after each other and their family.
The antima kriya is the final rite or funeral ceremony which takes place after the person has passed away. Hindus believe the body is just an outer garment which has to be discarded for a new body. There is therefore no fixation on the body hence it is not preserved but cremated. Hymns from the sacred text the Bhagavad Gita which talk of the immortality of the Self are recited to comfort grieving relatives.
Indic religions including Hinduism view death in a different manner from atheists or people of Abrahamic faiths. Hinduism does not agree with the atheists that people have only one life, they do not agree with the people of Abrahamic religions that they have only two lives, one on earth and a second in heaven. They have lived many lives before and bring with them mental impressions of their past lives in their subconscious. This shows up as their character in the present life. In a way this system is fairer because it offers measured rewards for measured work.
Rites of passage allow a focused lifestyle because it gives clear marking of entry into different stages of life. Thus a more structured approach to spiritual progress can be put into place.
The word dharma which defines Hinduism is derived from the Sanskrit root dhara which literally means that which holds everything together. Dharma becomes a search for unity that manifests itself as the diversity we experience. Dharma is put into practice by harnessing nature in order to reveal this underpinning. This esoteric definition of dharma is very close to the way science defines itself. Science too is looking for unity in diversity. It looks for patterns in nature and then offers mental models or hypotheses that can explain these patterns. This increases its power of predictability on how things behave allowing us to harness nature for our benefit. Searching for an economic explanation of the world we live in is the common goal of dharma and science.
The role of Belief: Belief is considered to be a good starting point for a spiritual journey but cannot be its destination. Science progresses using a belief system or a hypothesis and continues to evolve by checking these against experience.
Hinduism views the claims of prophets and the sacred writings as a framework upon which the individual can start his ‘experiment’ to prove the existence of God. Swanubhuti, meaning first-hand experience of God, is considered to be the only way to validate the truth claims of religion.
Celebrations take place to mark historic or mythological events. Some are seasonal and some are meant to enhance human relationships.
Diwali is the most popular Hindu festival and occurs at the start of winter. It celebrates the return of Rama to his kingdom after fourteen years in exile. On the night of his return, there was no moonlight, so the people of the kingdom lit lots of small lamps to welcome him back. This is why Diwali is called the ‘festival of lights’. Symbolically this implies moving from darkness to light or from ignorance to knowledge. People light lots of small lamps around the home. A worship ceremony dedicated to the Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, may be carried out in the home with the family. Money is given to charity, and gifts are exchanged, followed by a lavish feast. This is also a time when business people carry out a ritual called Chopra Pujan or ‘worshipping the books’ as a way of paying respect to their trade. This is the time of year to inculcate wealth and auspiciousness into our daily lives.
Holi is another popular festival. It heralds the arrival of spring. The narrative that goes with this festival is that on this day, Vishnu saved a child devotee called Prahlad from being burnt alive by an evil demoness called Holika. This is where the word Holi comes from. Traditionally a bonfire is lit in order to remember this event, and foodstuffs such as grains, coconuts and dates are offered to the fire. Children especially are taken to the bonfire to receive the blessings of Vishnu, in the same way that Prahlad did. Holi celebrates the arrival of spring. People throw coloured powder and water at each other to celebrate the arrival of colour on the landscape.
Navaratri is also a major Hindu festival which takes place over nine nights. According to mythology the Mother Goddess fought an evil demon for nine nights, and finally claimed victory on the tenth day, called Vijaya Dashami. People gather together for folk dances over these nine days, and a special worship is performed on the tenth day. Fruit and cooked food are offered to the Mother Goddess and then distributed and shared by all as a way of receiving her blessings. Many people carry out a fast during Navaratri. It is a time to celebrate the victory of good over evil, and is a time to inculcate strength, or Shakti. Strength is a quality particularly associated with the Mother Goddess.
Festivals act to remind individuals of higher, spiritual ideals. They give people the opportunity to perform good deeds such as donating to charity and exercise disciplines such as fasting. They also give the individual the chance to meet members of their family and the community, promoting a shared sense of identity.
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