Founders and Exemplars
The founders of Hinduism are given the generic title of rishis or ‘seers’ of God. Spiritual knowledge comes from the spiritual experiences of these rishis. Hundreds of such seers, ancient and modern, have contributed towards reviving and refreshing the message of spirituality throughout the ages. These teachings are contained in scriptures called the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Many ancient rishis chose not to reveal their identity, and hid behind the generic title of Vyasa, meaning ‘compiler’, to allow their teachings to merge naturally with existing teachings.
Hinduism continues to produce spiritual giants in contemporary times. In the last two centuries we have:
Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) the personification of Pluralism. He held that religions are not contradictory but complementary and all of them lead to the same goal. He said: “As many faiths, so many paths.”
Swami Vivekananda (1886-1902) represents the role of rationality in religion. “Religion cannot be a matter of belief; it has to be a matter of first hand experience.” He travelled extensively in the West. He represents the contemporary, comprehensive and comprehensible face of Hinduism.
Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) focused on discovering God within as our essential Self. His central investigation is into the question ‘Who am I?’ He recommends renunciation and nonattachment.
Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) was a mystic of modern times and author of the famous text, Autobiography of a Yogi.
Anandamayi Ma (1896-1982) was the modern female proponent of Hinduism. As a child she showed early signs of divinity that were observed by her parents and friends. As her reputation grew, she travelled extensively all over India encouraging her devotees to serve others without complaining. She believed that all religions joined into the same path: the realisation of the Supreme.
All of these religious figures promote the message of striving for higher spiritual ideals over secular living. People must live in the world without becoming materialistic. Devoting their lives for making spiritual progress, and eventually experiencing God for themselves, is the aim of human life. Truly spiritual living is service to humanity, and is the basis of morality.
These recent figures show by example how to live in the world without becoming materialistic, and how to devote lives to spiritual progress. For example, Sri Ramakrishna, although a man of God realisation, was married. He treated his wife as the Mother Goddess, and showed every householder the ideal relationship between a husband and wife.
All of these personalities not only use faith to provide meaning to their lives, but insist on first-hand experience of God. This is what makes them wonderful sources of inspiration and spiritual knowledge. Faith is only the start of a religious journey; it is first-hand realisation that is its conclusion. ‘Stop not till the goal is reached,’ remarked Swami Vivekananda. Moral living is the discipline required to succeed in this journey.
Initially these personalities talk of a stirring within which forced them to look for deeper insight into reality. Some were helped by other enlightened souls; some became their own teachers, some talked about the grace of God or placed greater emphasis on personal effort.
The generic title given to people with authority in Hinduism is Rishi (from the Sanskrit drish meaning one who sees or experiences God). Rishis can be ancient or modern, man or woman, young or old. Many of these personalities chose to remain anonymous and hid behind a generic name Vyasa or ‘compiler’. Avatar (literally meaning one who descends) is a title reserved for those personalities who are considered to be incarnation of God on earth. The most famous ancient avatars are Rama, Krishna and Buddha. Most sectarian movements will claim that the head of their movement to be an Avatar. Guru (meaning one who removes ignorance) is a title reserved for spiritual teacher. Swami is the title given to a monk who can also act as a teacher. Acharya is a title reserved for those Gurus who teach by example.
There is a vast array of colourful stories surrounding ancient rishis and avatars. With every telling there will be a tendency for some parts to be added and some parts to be taken out to take into account the changing needs of society. There will be a tendency for exaggerations and supernatural explanations to become incorporated in the narrative. Hinduism can draw on the teachings of modern rishis where properly documented material is available.