Hinduism (Part 1)

From "How Different Religions View Death and Afterlife, 1ST Edition by Christopher Johnson and Marsha McGee, Copyright 1991 by the Charles Press Publishers, Reprinted with permission.

This chapter is based on the teachings of Vedanta as embodied in the major Hindu scriptures—the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma Sutras, and others—and interpreted by Sankaracharya, the exponent of non-dualism. According to non-dualism, the Ultimate Reality of everything is Brahman, the non-dual pure consciousness, and It alone exists. The universe of beings and things is merely an appearance of Brahman in time and space. The individual soul and Brahman are absolutely non-different. The root cause of all bondage is the soul's ignorance of its true nature. Liberation is union with Brahman attained through Self-knowledge. The two other interpretations of Vedanta are qualified non-dualism and dualism. The chief exponent of qualified non-dualism is Ramanuja and of dualism, Madhva. Qualified non-dualism maintains that Brahman, though non-dual pure consciousness, transforms Itself into God, the universe, and the world of souls, and that the transformation is real. God is the whole and the individual soul is the part. The bondage of the individual soul is due to its alienation from God, and liberation is communion with God. Dualism believes that God is a personal being who creates the universe and the world of souls. The creation is real and the created beings and things are different from and dependent on God. The bondage of the soul is due to its forgetfulness of God, and liberation is communion with God.

Background of the Faith

Hinduism, considered the oldest religion of the world, is today practiced by over 500 million people in India and other countries. The word "Hindu" is a distorted form of "Sindhu," the Sanskrit word for Indus, the river that flows into the Arabian Sea. This mispronunciation is attributed to the Persians who invaded India at the end of the sixth century B.C. Later, during the Greek invasion of India (326 B.C.), the Greeks described the river Sindhu as "Indos," which was sometime afterward changed to "Indus." Since then, the country east of the river Indus has come to be known as India, its people as Indians, and their religion as Hinduism. The original name of Hinduism is Sanatana Dharma, which means "eternal religion." It was also known as Vaidika Dharma, or the "religion of the Vedas." The European traders and Christian missionaries who came to India at the beginning of the seventeenth century signified Hinduism as "Brahmanism."

A federation of many systems of thought, Hinduism is based not on any fixed sets of creeds and dogmas but on certain eternal principles. It was not founded by any historical personality. Many prophets, saints, mystics, and philosophers, both ancient and modern, have contributed to its growth, development, and perpetuation. The great teachers of Hinduism are Sri Rama (of the Ramayana), Sri Krishna (of the Bhagavad Gita), Sri Sankaracharya (A.D. 788-820), Sri Ramanuja (A.D. 1017-1137), Sri Madhva (A.D. 1199-1276), Sri Chaitanya (A.D. 1485-1533), and in modern times, Sri Ramakrishna (A.D. 1836-1886), and Swami Vivekananda (A.D. 1863-1902). Their lives demonstrate the validity of the spiritual teachings of Hinduism. Hinduism derives its authority primarily from the four Vedas: the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda, and the Atharva-Veda. Each Veda consists of four parts: the mantras, or hymns in praise of Vedic deities; the brahmanas, or the section dealing with rituals and ceremonies; the aranyakas, or philosophical interpretation of the rituals; and the Upanishads, or the concluding portions of the Vedas (known as Vedanta), which describe the profound spiritual truths. Hinduism derives its authority secondarily from another group of scriptures-the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, the Puranas, and others. Of the two groups of scriptures, the Vedas along with the Upanishads are known as srutis, while the others are called smritis. Sruti is revelation and smriti is tradition.

The Ultimate Reality

Hindu scriptures describe ultimate reality as Brahman. Brahman is non-dual pure consciousness, indivisible, incorporeal, infinite, and all-pervading like the sky. Brahman is of the nature of existence-knowledge-bliss-absolute-the ground of all existence, basis of all awareness, and source of all bliss. It is the reality of all realities, the soul of all souls, one without a second, the constant witness of the changing phenomena of the universe. From the absolute point of view, Brahman alone exists. Brahman has two aspects: transcendent and immanent. In Its transcendent aspect, Brahman is devoid of name and form, sex and attributes. But in Its immanent aspect, Brahman is endowed with them. The Upanishads designate the transcendent Brahman by the word "It" and the immanent Brahman by the word "He." Through Its inscrutable power called maya, the transcendent Brahman appears to be conditioned by time and space and to manifest itself as personal God, the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the universe. The Upanishads describe God as the supreme person:

His hands and feet are everywhere; His eyes, heads, and faces are everywhere; His ears are everywhere; He exists compassing all.[i] The heavens are His head; the sun and moon, His eyes; the quarters, His ears; the revealed Vedas, His speech; the wind is His breath; the universe, His heart. From His feet is produced the earth. He is, indeed, the inner Self of all beings.[ii]

The various Godheads of Hinduism, such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Kali, and Durga, are but different facets of Brahman. The supreme Brahman assumes various forms for the fulfillment of the individual spiritual seekers. All concepts and forms of God, according to Hinduism, are what we think of Him and not what He is to Himself. Again, various seekers of God, depending upon their advancement, perceive God differently. For example, to the beginner God appears as an extra-cosmic creator; to the more advanced seeker as inner controller; and to the perfect knower of God, God is everywhere and in everything. Still another manifestation of the conditioned Brahman is the incarnation of God-God's taking human form. According to Hinduism, God incarnates Himself to fulfill the needs of the universe, whenever and wherever such a need arises. In the Bhagavad Gita Sri Krishna says:

Whenever there is a decline of dharma (righteousness), O Bharata, and a rise of adharma (unrighteousness), I incarnate myself. For the protection of the good, for the destruction of the wicked, and for the establishment of dharma, I am born in every age.[iii]

Thus, according to Hinduism, the supreme Godhead is both formless and endowed with many forms.

Part 2

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