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Hinduism: Its Meaning for the Liberation of the Spirit
Swami Nikhilananda
. "No other book on Hinduism presents it in all its aspects in so short a compass." - F.S.C Northrop, Yale University.

ISBN 26-4. 220 pages.
Paperback $ 12.50

Paperback $ 12.50


Chapter 1

HINDUISM is the dominant religion of the vast Indian subcontinent, and since the beginning of its history has profoundly influenced the lives and thoughts of countless millions of the Indian people from cradle to grave. It has left an indelible impress on the entire culture of India: on her philosophy, art, architecture, literature, politics, and sociology. Religion gives to a Hindu equanimity of mind in prosperity and adversity, courage to face the problems of his life, and a vision of his ultimate spiritual destiny. Through Buddhism, an offshoot of Hinduism, India has influenced the spiritual culture of Ceylon, Burma, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, and other countries of Asia, many of which still regard India as Heir spiritual homeland.

India did not, in the past, develop a national unity, in the political sense, like that enjoyed by the nations of the West. But her people, owing allegiance to common spiritual ideals, have been held together by an intangible religious bond. That is why they did not disintegrate as a nation despite a prolonged foreign domination and other vicissitudes of history. Diversities of ritual and belief, of food and dress, caste and social behaviour, language and politics, have not been able to destroy His deeper spiritual unity. Scratch a modern Hindu and you will find him religious in spite of his veneer of secular upbringing and education.

Through her religion and philosophy India has earned the respect of many thoughtful people of the Western world. To quote the words of Max Muller:

If one would ask me under what sky the human mind has most fully developed its precious gifts, has scrutinized most profoundly the greatest problems of life, and has, at least for some, provided solutions which deserve to be admired even by those who have studied Plato and Kant, I would indicate India. And if one would ask me which literature would give us back (us Europeans, who have been exclusively fed on Greek and Roman thought, and on that of a Semitic race) the necessary equilibrium in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in short, more human, a life not only for this life, but for a transformed and eternal life, once again I would indicate India.

Hinduism is not a set of abstract philosophical theories unrelated to life or a congeries of religious dogmas to be accepted with blind faith; it combines both philosophy and religion, reason and faith, and promises to its votaries a direct insight into reality, and the grounds for the acceptance of that insight. Philosophy saved the Hindu from religious bigotry, and religion saved him from the ivory-tower attitude of cold intellectualism. Whenever, in the course of Hinduism's development, religion erred by emphasizing ritual or dogma as the only means to the highest goal, a sound rational philosophy put it on the right path, and whenever intellect claimed the role of sole pathfinder, religion showed the futility of mere discursive reasoning and stressed the importance of worship as a discipline for communion with ultimate reality. Thus not only the seers of the Upanishads, but also Buddha and Sankaracharya (A.D. 788-820) repudiated the claims of the popular religion of their time to be the exclusive means for the realization of the highest good. The author of the Bhagavad Gita as well as Ramanuja (A.D. 1017-1137), Chaitanya (A.D. 1485-1533), and other mystics raised their voices against arid intellectualism. In our own day Ramakrishna ( 1836-1886) harmonized the apparent conflict between reason and faith. In the Hindu tradition, reason saves the aspiring devotee from avoidable errors and pitfalls, work purifies his heart, meditation creates one-pointedness of mind, love gives him the urge to move forward, faith supports him with courage in the hour of despondency, and the grace of God bestows upon him the final fruit of liberation.

Not being a historical religion like Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam, each of which has been articulated by the teachings of its individual founder, Hinduism baffles all attempts to give it an easy and convenient definition; the truths of the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, were not formulated by historical persons. Moreover the universal nature of Hinduism frustrates any endeavour to confine it in exact statement; the Vedas preach an impersonal reality as ultimate truth, and not the Personal God, though they make room for such a God and for other divinities.

Hinduism, though based essentially on the teachings of the Vedas, is secondarily derived from the moral and religious precepts of many prophets and saints, philosophers and lawgivers, of ancient, medieval, and modern times. It is thus a growing organism daily enriched by new truths, emerging from the experiences of living men and women, which have preserved its vitality and prevented it from being cluttered with lifeless dogmas. But Hinduism's main foundation still remains the Vedas, whose teachings are not the product of human intellect. These scriptures contain eternal truths regarding the nature of ultimate reality, the creation, and the soul and its destiny, which cannot be determined through sense-data and reasoning based upon them. They also tell us about the cosmic divinities, the various heavens, the different courses followed by souls after death, and other similar phenomena beyond the reach of the senses. As timeless as the creation itself, these truths were discovered for the Indian world, and not created, by certain seers who were possessed of rare insight attained through moral disciplines, intense concentration, intellectual acumen, unflagging self-control, and utter non-attachment to transitory pleasures. These seers of truth, both men and women, were called rishis; they lived mostly on the banks of the Indus and the Ganges, in northern India. We know almost nothing about their personal lives, for it was not the person, but the ideas they stood for, that appealed to the ancient Hindus.

According to Hindu philosophers a conclusion regarding a spiritual truth depends for its validity on three factors: the scriptures, reason, and personal experience. An aspirant, with the help of a qualified teacher, should first study the scriptures, which record the spiritual experiences of past seers of truth. Then he must subject the instruction thus received to rigorous reasoning. Finally, after being convinced of the soundness of what he has studied, he must meditate on it and experience it in the depths of contemplation. Neither the Vedas, however, nor reasoning, nor experience can independently create genuine conviction. By depending solely upon the scriptures one becomes dogmatic. Reason, by itself, cannot give certainty, and often it is found that reasoning conceals the rationalizing of a man's desire; he proves what he wants to prove. Personal experience by itself can also be deceptive in that it may project one's own favourite ideas. But when all three factors jointly lead to the same conclusion, one may be reasonably assured of having reached the truth, just as, for instance, a law in the United States of America is accepted as valid when it is approved by the Congress, the Executive, and the Supreme Court. The authority of the Vedas does not depend upon supernatural beings or historical evidence, which may be shaken by science or by new historical discoveries. It is ultimately derived from spiritual experiences which are attainable by every human being.

The Vedas are concerned not only with man's longing for the supreme goal, which has been described as freedom, peace, bliss, or immortality, but also with his more immediate impulse toward material pleasures here on earth and happiness in heaven. The latter represents a universal yearning and can be fulfilled, according to the Vedas, through the help of the gods or superhuman beings, and also through the discharge of social obligations. The interdependence of the gods, men, subhuman creatures, and nature is admitted, the welfare of one being dependent upon the welfare of all. In Vedic times the gods were propitiated by means of oblations offered into the sacrificial fire, which have now been replaced by the ritualistic worship in temples and popular shrines. The sacrifices and similar methods of worship have been described in the ritualistic section of the Vedas, called the Karma-kanda, and the disciplines for freedom in the philosophical section, called the Jnana-kanda, which comprises the Upanishads.

Who are these Vedic gods, known by such names as Prajapati, Indra, Varuna, Yama, and Rudra? Generally speaking' gods occupy exalted positions from which they control the rain, sunshine, the wind, water, fire, death, and other natural phenomena. They are manifestations of the power of Brahman, or ultimate reality, in the phenomenal universe. Some of them also control the activities of the mind, the vital breath, and the sense-organs in the human body, which, being material in nature, would be inert and unconscious were they not animated by Brahman. The ancient Hindus prayed to the gods for longevity, health, children, grandchildren, and material prosperity. The gods were the custodians of the social well-being of men, from whose sacrificial oblations they drew their sustenance; they therefore became annoyed if men violated their social obligations. But a devotee, by worshipping them without any selfish motive, through their grace obtained purity of heart, which helped him in the realization of truth.

The Vedas enjoin it upon all to treat with kindness subhuman beings, such as beasts and birds, which help to promote human happiness. Thus a man's enjoyment of earthly pleasures depends upon his discharge of his duties to the gods, his fellow human beings, and the beasts and birds. The satisfaction derived from a harmonious relationship with other living beings produces inner contentment and opens the gateway to the higher life. But the satisfaction derived from ruthless competition with others, or from unkind treatment of lower creatures, or from indifference to the gods, in the end brings frustration and is without any spiritual significance. The Vedas emphasize the fact that happiness on earth and in heaven is transitory, because it is related to impermanent material objects, and also because it is an effect and can therefore endure only so long as the momentum given by its cause endures. The denizens of heaven eventually must return to earth and continue their apparently interminable round of birth and death in a universe governed by the laws of time, space, and causality. He who is attached to the universe and seeks happiness from it cannot attain to liberation, which is possible only through the knowledge of the self or Brahman, described in the Upanishads.

The secondary scriptures of Hinduism are the various Smritis and Puranas, which give a popular interpretation of the philosophical truths of the Vedas. These secondary scriptures must not contradict the central philosophy of the Vedas described in the Upanishads, but should show how to apply these truths to society and to the individual life, according to the demands of changing times. A distinctive feature of Hinduism is that while it remains utterly loyal to the eternal truths, it admits the need for new dogmas and rituals to suit changing conditions. A medieval dogma cannot satisfy the modern world.

In a sense Hinduism is a complex religion; but complexity is inherent in human nature. People are endowed with different temperaments, tastes, and tendencies. Some want total identity with the Deity, while others wish to preserve their separate identities; some are intellectual, some introspective, some devotional, and some active. Thus disciplines vary. Furthermore, some prefer to contemplate an impersonal spiritual ideal, and some to worship a tangible deity, whether the Personal God or a crude image of clay or stone. Besides, different people emphasize different attributes of God: justice, power, beauty, law, love, peace. These attributes, however, are not contradictory but rather complementary, like the different coloured stones in a mosaic or the different patterns in a tapestry. Hinduism has blended these differences into one comprehensive religious-philosophical system, the keynote of which is unity in diversity. A synthesis of many religions, Hinduism has an irresistible appeal for religious-minded people.

According to the Vedas, ultimate reality is all-pervading, uncreated, self-luminous, eternal spirit, the final cause of the universe, the power behind all tangible forces, the consciousness which animates all conscious beings. This is the central philosophy of the Hindu, and his religion consists of meditation on this spirit and prayer for the guidance of his intellect along the path of virtue and righteousness.

From the Philosophical standpoint. Hinduism is non-dualistic, and from the religious standpoint, monotheistic. The Hindu philosophy asserts the essential non-duality of God, soul, and universe, the apparent distinctions being created by names and forms which, from the standpoint of ultimate reality, do not exist. Though the Hindu religion admits of many popular divinities, it regards them as diverse manifestations of the one God. Through them He fulfils the desires of His devotees. The Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva represents the three aspects of the Godhead which control the processes of creation, preservation, and destruction respectively. Any one of them is incomplete and illusory without the other two. Through unceasing creation and destruction God preserves the universe. Hindu monotheism does not repudiate the various deities of the different faiths, but includes them as the manifestations of the One.

According to Hinduism, religion is experience and not the mere acceptance of certain time-honoured dogmas or creeds. To know God is to become like God. A man may quote scripture, engage in ritual, perform social service, or pray with regularity, but unless he has realized the divine spirit in his heart, he is still a phenomenal being, a victim of the pairs of opposites. One can experience God as tangibly as "a fruit lying on the palm of one's hand," which means that in this very life a man can suppress his lower nature, manifest his higher nature, and become perfect. Through the experience of God, a man's doubts disappear and "the knots of his heart are cut asunder." By ridding himself of the desires clinging to his heart, a mortal becomes immortal in this very body. That the attainment of immortality is not the prerogative of a chosen few, but the birthright of all, is the conviction of every good Hindu.

The four cardinal principles of Hinduism may be summed up as follows: the non-duality of the Godhead, the divinity of the soul, the unity of existence, and the harmony of religions. On these four principles the faith of a good Hindu is based. The articles of that faith will be discussed in detail in the succeeding chapters of this book.

Contrary to the opinion held by many both inside and outside India, Hinduism has never condemned a rich and full life in the world or extolled poverty as a virtue in itself—though the case is different with monks, who voluntarily take the vow of mendicancy. Dharma, or righteousness, has been defined as what is conducive to both the enjoyment of legitimate material pleasures and the realization of the highest good, according to people's different stages of evolution. The Upanishads exhort men to enjoy life for a hundred years, giving up greed and possessiveness. It was India's fabulous wealth that invited foreign invaders, from the Greeks to the modern Europeans. Religion has never been the cause of India's poverty; it is indifference to religious precepts that has been largely responsible for her general backwardness. In an ideal society the majority of people should be householders performing their different duties as priests and philosophers, kings and warriors, tradesmen and farmers, and lastly as manual workers, according to their innate aptitudes. Only a minority should be monks, practicing renunciation, both external and internal, in order to demonstrate the supremacy of the spirit.

One sees in India a large number of persons wandering about in monastic garb, many of whom are not genuine mendicants. These persons have taken to the monastic life for various reasons. According to the philosophically sound nondualistic interpretation of Vedanta, the knowledge of the nondual Brahman is utterly incompatible with the performance of duties which admit of the triple factors of doer, instrument of action, and result. Hence people have often sought what they thought to be an easy way to the highest knowledge through renunciation of worldly duties. A negative interpretation of the doctrine of Maya is often responsible for the erroneous notion that the world is unreal. Buddha definitely taught that Nirvana could be attained only by world-renouncing monks, and his followers later welcomed people to the monastic life without much discrimination. Because of the general spirit of renunciation that pervades Hinduism, the monastic life has an irresistible appeal for religious-minded Hindus. A man who cannot easily earn his livelihood, when dressed as a monk always obtains a few morsels of food from god-fearing and hospitable householders. Furthermore, on account of the frustrations caused by prolonged foreign domination, many Hindus have sought an escape from the exacting demands of life by renouncing the world and making a cult of poverty and asceticism. All this accounts for the presence of numerous monks in Hindu society. There are, of course, many genuine monks who, through renunciation of the world, have kept alive the highest ideals of Hinduism. In recent times Swami Vivekananda gave a new direction to monastic life by supplementing the ideal of renunciation with that of service to humanity, exhorting monks to work for the uplift of the masses. Heeding his advice, many individual monks and many monastic organizations have taken up various social and educational activities to improve the people's condition.

But the general tenor of Hinduism has been to encourage householders to enjoy material goods without deviating from the path of righteousness. A Hindu proverb says: "Fortune in full measure resides in trade and commerce, one half of that in agriculture, and one half again of that in service to the government; but the goddess of fortune quickly runs away from a beggar." The life depicted in the Vedas and Puranas is a joyous, affirmative, optimistic, and creative life. What is seen in India today in society and religion is not a true index of Indian culture.

Religion has always been the backbone of India. During the days of her national misfortune it was religion that saved Hindu society from total disintegration. All through the period of her political decline, saints and mystics have urged her to give up vanity and pride, and cultivate love of men and devotion to God. India listened to their advice and survived. In the history of the world she is perhaps the solitary instance of an ancient nation whose soul could not be destroyed by ruthless conquerors either by force or persuasion, while many younger nations have disappeared after a meteoric display of physical power and glory.

The chapters to come will reveal the various dimensions of Hinduism. Its extent includes the conception of Brahman, or absolute reality, which is the foundation of the moral and spiritual laws that guide the universe, and under whose control the sun, moon, and stars move along their orbits. Its tremendous depth consists in its conception of the soul, subtler than the subtle and greater than the great, guiding the activities of body, sense-organs, and mind. Its breadth appears in its catholic attitude toward all systems of religious and philosophical thought, and in its respect for those who differ from it. One may discover yet a fourth dimension in Hinduism in its realization of the all-embracing unity of animate and inanimate beings: of God, souls, and the universe.

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Copyrightę 1996, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York.


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