Human nature and destiny

The best-known account of human nature and destiny in Hinduism refers to the self (atman) as the eternal essence of the individual, distinguished from the body, that experiences reincarnation (punarjanma) within the round of existence (samsara) in accordance with the law of action (karma) unless or until it attains liberation (moksha). In the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna instructs Arjuna on such subjects, three paths to liberation have been identified. These are: jnana-yoga, the path of knowledge, often interpreted as insight into the distinction between the self and the body which is expressed in terms of the difference between Purusha (Person) and Prakriti (Nature) (13.23) and explained by comparing the relationship of the self with the body to that of the embodied self with clothes (2.22); bhakti-yoga, the path of devotion, in this context love and service of Krishna who declares that he will accept the simplest of offerings if made in that spirit (9.26) and hence a form of practice open to all irrespective of social status or gender or even religion (9.23,32); and karma-yoga, the path of action, the performance of duty in a selfless spirit, which unlike ordinary actions (whether bad or good) does not entail karmic consequences and so can lead to liberation from reincarnation. In Arjuna’s case, action means the warrior’s duty to fight (2.30).

There have been different views on which, if any, path is the most important. Traditionally, many commentators opted for either knowledge or devotion though modern figures such as Gandhi (1869-1948) have advocated action, for him non-violent, in order to satisfy the standard of selflessness, whereas Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), his fellow nationalist who also prioritised action, adopted an innovative approach towards duty by extending the duty of the warrior to fight in a just war to the Indian people as a whole to fight colonial oppression. There has also been a marked tendency to see the paths as interdependent and therefore impossible to disentangle or as equally valid and therefore suited to different temperaments.

However, there are multiple perspectives on human nature and destiny and consequently the religious discipline to be adopted. For example, while many schools of thought and forms of Hinduism maintain that there are many selves, Advaita Vedanta appeals to levels of truth to establish that these many selves only exist at the lower level of empirical or consensus reality whereas at the higher level there is only one Self which is equated with ultimate reality understood as an impersonal absolute (Brahman-Atman). So the ultimate goal is to realise your essential unity with Brahman and the main path is study and meditation. The illusion of reincarnation will then not reoccur. In Dvaita Vedanta thought, the individual self is distinct from both God and other selves, so the goal is to free the true self within in order to devote oneself to God in this life and eventually reach God’s presence after death rather than being reincarnated. Vishishtadvaita Vedanta has an understanding between complete unity with God and complete separateness, in that selves are completely dependent on God, but the unity is one of relationship with a personal God. The goal is to dwell in this eternal relationship rather than be reincarnated. Both Dvaita and Vishishtadvaita Vedanta tend to prioritise the path of bhakti or loving devotion to God as the way to reach God.

Samkhya refers to the self as Purusha (Person) and Prakriti (Nature) as two ultimate or eternal realities. There are many eternal selves that confuse their true nature as conscious subjects with the products of nature, not just the physical body but also intellect, individuality, the mind and the senses, in a relationship likened to that of a spectator (Purusha) watching a dancer (Prakriti) and becoming so caught up in the dance that it forgets it is just watching rather than dancing. The goal is kaivalya (isolation) in which each self is free of its association with nature though in fact the self and nature were really always distinct. Thus the ultimate goal is to set yourself free from the false sense of entanglement/identification with the material world, and the main path is renunciation and meditation. It should be noted that there is no necessity here for the concept of God, so Samkhya is to all intents and purposes atheistic. Where Samkhya thought has been combined with the philosophy of Yoga, the deity can be looked to as an example of a purusha who has never been trapped in the material world.

In Shakta Tantra the human being is an incarnation of the male (Shiva) and female (Shakti) principles with a mystical physiology of nadis (channels) and centres (chakras) as a microcosm of the universe. The practitioner seeks to raise Shakti in the form of Kundalini (the coiled serpent power) up the central channel through successive centres until it reaches the thousand-petalled lotus above the head. In order to achieve this unification of Shiva and Shakti and thereby transcend all oppositions, the practitioner employs different bodily postures and physical and mental exercises (see Meditation and yoga). Rather than seeking to free yourself from the material body, this esoteric form of Hindu practice makes use of the physical body to realise the divine female-male unity within this life here and now.

Nevertheless, many Hindus may be more concerned, at least immediately, with this-worldly matters such as health, happiness and prosperity and also with acquiring merit in order to achieve a favourable incarnation in the next life rather than focusing on any ultimate eternal destiny. These aims are associated with other practices, among them vows (vrats) for personal well-being, marital harmony and family success and doing good deeds of various kinds including acts of generosity and hospitality. Living an ethical life, doing your duty and being kind to all are the priorities in this context.

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Hindu Worldview Traditions


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