Answers to Ultimate Questions
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.