By Phiroz Mehta
A peninsula of South Asia was destined to become the cradle of four of the Great Religions of the world and to mother all the others in course of time. It was a great forest land. West and south and east of it was the ocean. The north-east and north were hemmed in by the world’s mightiest mountains, the Himalayas. But in the mountains on the north-west there were a few passes which afforded convenient routes of entry.
Now a forest land with warm, wet summers and several great rivers is very suitable for human settlement. There is fertile soil, good pasture for cattle, and an assured water supply. The earliest settlers came about seven thousand years ago from far-away Africa and Western Asia. They were black-skinned people, the rather short Negritos and the taller proto-Australoids. They made little clearings all over this forest land and settled down to a simple village life.
Some of these people believed in a Supreme God. Others believed in a Supreme Goddess, who, they felt, must necessarily have a husband, a God-Consort. Rather more intriguing were their ideas of the soul. They believed it was shaped like a little man, a manikin, and was situated inside the head. It was made of invisible soul-matter, or life-essence, which could not be destroyed. After death, this indestructible life-essence passed into the earth, fertilized the crops, and when food containing such soul-matter was eaten by your wife, it appeared again when she had her baby. This idea is one of the sources of the later popular belief that an undying part of yourself, your soul, lives again and again in this world in new bodies.
About two thousand years passed by before brown-skinned settlers from Sumeria and Armenia came into this land of villages. They built the first well-planned cities with good roads and drainage systems. Their houses were made of large, well-baked bricks and had bathrooms and indoor sanitation. They traded with the inhabitants of their old home cities such as Elam and Kish, Sumer and Akkad, along the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris and by the shores of the Persian Gulf. They made beautiful ornaments of gold, silver and ivory, pottery painted mostly with geometrical patterns, vessels, tools and weapons of copper and bronze, and children’s toys of metal and terracotta. They had a pictographic script; but unfortunately we have not yet learned how to decipher it. They had some knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and music. In fact, a civilization as advanced as any other in that age flourished there five thousand years ago.
Several of their old cities, such as Harappā and Mohenjo-dāro, which in course of time got buried under desert sands, have been excavated since 1922. Many small, carved or moulded figures and ornaments worn as charms were unearthed. They give us a clue to some of the religious beliefs of the people. They believed in a Mother Goddess, and also in many animal-gods and tree-gods. They had their own system of prayer and worship. It is likely that they knew Yoga. They may have associated this with a Supreme Being, who, much later, came to be called Śiva.
After another thousand years or so of this civilization had rolled by, tall, virile, haughty, fair-skinned people came southwards through the Central Asian steppe lands into Afghanistan. They were warrior herdsmen, who rode horses and had iron swords. Some went westwards and established dominion in Western Iran. Others turned eastwards over the mountains. Through the deep defiles they swept, and rode as conquerors into the vast, fertile plainland watered by the mighty Sindhu river and its four great tributaries, the land we call the Punjab to this day. Their Iranian cousins spoke of them as the settlers on the banks, not of the Sindhu but of the Hindu River. Thus, these settlers came to be known as Hindus, the land they ruled as Hindu-stan (that is, the standing place, or place of establishment of the Hindus), and their religion as Hinduism, after it had gone through certain changes. The original language of these people is quite lost. It is said to be the parent of Vedic and Sanskrit in Hindustan, of Avestan in Iran, of Greek and Latin and of the Slavonic and Teutonic languages in the Western World. Together, they all make up the Indo-European family of languages.
Hitherto, the peninsula had seen two stages of development; first, the village settlements; second, the rise of city-states. The new settlers ushered in the third stage; the establishment of great kingdoms. These conquerors called themselves Aryans, that is, the noble or the worthy ones. The country under their lordship they named Āryāvarta, and also Bhāratavarsha. Their own Aryan society was composed of three main groups; the Rājanyas who were the rulers and all those engaged in the task of government; the Brahmins, who were the saints and sages, teachers and priests; and the Vaiśhyas who were the merchants and traders. The conquered dark-skinned people were called Dasyus, that is, servants who performed all the menial tasks.
The Aryans brought with them a wonderful collection of religious hymns when they entered the Punjab. More hymns were composed as time passed. The composers of the hymns were saintly sages.
In modern times their real greatness is not clearly understood. Some of them were, in fact, as great as the Founders of the world’s Great Religions. They were called Ṛsis. The main collection of their hymns is called the Ṛg-veda (verses of knowledge); the smaller collections are called the Sāma-veda, the Yajur-veda and the Atharva-veda.
An elaborate system of religious services and sacrifices arose in order to suit private and public worship, state occasions such as a king’s coronation, family events such as births, weddings and funerals, and ritual sacrifices such as the horse-sacrifice. These are described in detail in treatises known as the Brāhmaṇas.
In the several, prosperous, civilized kingdoms which the Ṛg-vedic Aryans established over the Indo-Gangetic plains, there arose philosophically-minded men and women, deeply religious by nature, who, after having brought up a family, retired into little hermitages adjoining the villages. There they devoted the rest of their lives to holy living. They got to know the truth about the deep mysteries of life, the purpose of man’s existence and his destiny, the hereafter, and about the soul and immortality and God. As a result of this came the compositions known as the Āraṇyakas (forest meditations) and the Upaniṣads (‘sitting-at-the-feet-of-the-master’ knowledge). In the very early days, knowledge was handed down orally. After the fifth century before Christ, it began to be written down and preserved in palm leaf manuscripts. Books as we know them today were made only in recent centuries.
When we say Vedic literature, or Vedic scriptures, we mean the four collections of the hymns, the Brāhmaṇas, the Āraṇyakas and the Upaniṣads all together. When we say the Vedas, we often mean only the four collections of the hymns.
Now just as the old Greeks had their two great epics, the Iliad, or the story of the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, or the story of the Wanderings of Odysseus, from which we learn a good deal about early Greek religion, even so there are two very long Hindu epics, the Mahābhārata, or the Story of the Great War of the descendents of Bhārata, and the Rāmayana, or the Story of the ideal King Rāma and his wife, the ideal woman Sītā, which contain religious teachings in addition to the Vedic scriptures.
The Brahmins not only taught the common people their religion, but also their daily duties, professionally and socially. All these daily duties in the household, the school, the shop, the office, the farms and the government, had religious ceremonials associated with them. When you went to your shop you said a little prayer; before eating your meal you said grace and a made a little offering; when you went on a journey and when you returned home, a little religious ceremony was performed; and so on in connection with everything. Thus religious ceremonial permeated the whole of life. Each member of each social group had his own religious duties exactly laid down. This type of religion has been called Brahmanism. In a broad sense, it was the successor of Vedic religion.
Brahmanism flourished for a thousand years or so before the birth, in 563 B.C., of Prince Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha. During this period, as happens in the history of all organized religions, abuses had crept in. The Buddha taught afresh the supreme truths and the path to the Highest, which he called Nirvana. So the Buddha’s reformation of Brahmanism produced a great new world religion, namely Buddhism. As the centuries passed, large numbers of people became Buddhists. Brahmanism had to take note of this. It went through a series of changes. Hinduism is the name given to the old Brahmanism after it went through these developments. Hinduism also has undergone changes and developments during the last fifteen centuries.
Vedic religion, Brahmanism and Hinduism are the three broad divisions in the development, over some four thousand years, of the one religion we call Hinduism today. In addition to the Vedic scriptures, there are the Purāṇas (ancient teachings) which are a great collection in eighteen books of Hindu myths and stories of Hindu saints. There are also several great systems of philosophy which have scriptural status to some degree or other.
Pre-eminent among all the Hindu scriptures is the Bhagavad-Gītāor Lord’s Song. Here, Śrī Kṛṣṇa, who is God incarnate in man, gives the supreme teachings to his beloved disciple Arjuna, a heroic prince. Hinduism is unique among the great religions of the world in certain respects. It has had many Great Teachers instead of one single founder. It is intimately bound up with the Hindu social system and with the daily life of the people. It has always been so willing to absorb different or new ideas that it includes almost all doctrines and beliefs and religious practices found all over the world. Consequently, even contradictory beliefs and doctrines are found in one and the same religion, Hinduism. Lastly, the Hindu outlook on life is one in which religion, philosophy, art and science do not have rigid boundaries but mingle together to a great extent. The aim is to make life a unified whole.
The socio-religious way of life of the ancient Aryans was called Varnāśrama Dharma. The varṇas were the various groups of people — workers, warriors, merchants etc. The āśramas were the four stages of life:
Only the very religious men and women went through the third stage; and of these, only the great saints went through the fourth stage. The bulk of people stayed in the second stage to the end of their days.
Dharma means all your social, professional and religious duties, proper to your varṇa and to your āśrama. Thus the word dharma stands for your own religious faith and worship, and also for the whole way of life you ought to observe throughout every day of your life according to the instructions of your religion. One may wonder why religion should control ordinary everyday life, love, happiness and pleasure, etc. The answer is well expressed by Vyāsa, one of the Great Teachers: Success and happiness in the true sense are the results of living the good life as taught by religion.
Just as Christianity has many branches such as the Roman Catholic, Protestant, Methodist, etc., Hinduism has its branches such as Shaivism, Vaishnavism, etc. There is, however, a core, a Hindu dharma, which is common to all these branches, and is called the Sanātana Dharma or the Eternal Religion. This declares that the universe is an orderly cosmos and not a disorderly chaos. The Power or Law by which this world-order is upheld is dharma. This upholding Power is inherent in everything, both living and non-living.
It is not forcibly imposed by Divine Command. Indeed, the Divine is absolute Dharma itself, or absolute rightness, love, truth, goodness, beauty, wisdom, duty, etc. Thus if we recognize and understand dharma, we recognize and understand the truth in everything from a flower to a star-cluster, in every creature from an ant to a saint, and, most wonderful of all, in God. A moment’s thought will show us, then, that scientific knowledge, which reveals to us the laws of principles according to which things happen, life grows and the universe moves in marvellous patterns, reveals dharma, reveals the ways of Providence to us. So, too, if we look into art and philosophy, we can discover how they reveal dharma to us. Thus we can understand how, in the Hindu view, religion, science, art, philosophy and the affairs of daily life are so intimately related to each other.
Dharma, or religion, is the power for making harmony in our own selves and in our personal and community life. Hinduism teaches that the means for producing this harmony and happiness is to fulfil all our duties: in relation to the world of affairs we must do our jobs perfectly; in relation to our own self, constant purification and training; to family and to mankind, loving service; to life and nature, reverent and joyous appreciation; to God, our whole self in uttermost adoration, worship and surrender. The religious man is he who devotes himself to making and maintaining such harmony. His life is truly the happy life, the good life, the holy life. The irreligious man is he who makes disharmony.
How is disharmony produced? By denying in act or word or thought our relationship to the world of things, to all life and nature, and above all, to God. In other words, we produce disharmony whenever we spoil or try to break the basic unity of all existence in thought or word or deed. Thus we deny Love and Truth. We deny God, the All-Good. This is sin. The root cause of sin is ignorance of dharma, of the true nature of everything. This ignorance brings about Ahamkāra, the root of selfishness. ‘Aham’ means ‘I’, the ego; ‘kāra’ means ‘maker’. Ahamkāra is the kind of egoism which is not merely a self-sense in a reasonable way (for after all, you, John Smith are John Smith and not Willy Jones), but a self-sense which makes you live as if you were quite separate from others, as if there was no relationship whatever between you and others, and between you and God. Naturally, this leads to ill-behaviour, cruelty, irreverence, inconsiderateness and acquisitiveness.
Selflessness and altruism are root virtues. From the earliest days, Brahmanism praised five simple virtues: non-violence, that is not to murder or to hurt in act or speech or thought; non-stealing; truthfulness in speech, act and thought; non-acceptance of unnecessary gifts; complete purity in act, speech and thought. These virtues were to be practised by everyone. Those who were more in earnest about living the religious life also observed cleanliness (of body and mind), contentment, austerity, study of the scriptures, and self-surrender to God.
Hinduism has always taught: honour thy father and mother, thy teacher and thy elders. In one of the scriptures, the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, it is distinctly laid down that the parents and the teacher should be venerated as gods. In a later work, by Manu, it is declared that the father deserves a hundredfold the reverence due to the teacher, but the mother exceeds the father a thousand times. In another part, however, of the same work, Manu declares that the teacher of sacred knowledge who gives the eternal, spiritual body, is greater than the parents who give the material, perishable body.
Six other ennobling virtues mark the religious character: faith, tranquillity, self-control, detatchment from worldly things, fortitude and being constantly mindful of God. All these virtues, together with several others not mentioned, indicate the moral standard expected of the Hindu. There is probably no other religion which has so many ceremonies and festivals as Hinduism. We must briefly notice a few. Shortly after birth there is a ceremony to give the child his or her name. Later on, some time between seven years of age and puberty, there is an elaborate confirmation ceremony called upānayana, when the boy is invested with the sacred thread and girdle. Henceforth he is pledged to the Hindu faith. In olden days, girls, too, went through this ceremony. Nowadays, girls do not go through it in their early years, but combine it with their marriage ceremony. This, of course, is the most important one. It is preceded by the betrothal ceremony, which is considered in India to be fully binding. It would be very unusual, even in our own times, to break off a betrothal, although modern legislation allows each individual great freedom. The reason is that from the earliest days, quite four thousand years ago, marriage has always been regarded as a spiritual sacrament first and a social contract afterwards. Conjugal love was pure and exalted only if approached with deep reverence. The earliest known wedding hymn is in the Ṛg-veda. The first part of this hymn presents marriage as being made in heaven, and is deeply mystical. The marriage made in heaven is the spiritual origin and the religious basis of earthly, human marriage, celebrated in the second part of the hymn, of which here are some extracts:
The priest says:
Let Aryaman and Bhaga lead us: perfect, O gods, the union of the wife and the husband.
To thy husband I bind thee with auspicious bonds, that, bounteous Indra, she may live blest in her fortune and her sons.
Go to the husband’s house to be the household’s mistress, and speak as lady to thy gathered people
Happy be thou and prosper with thy children here: be vigilant to rule thy household, in this home.
Closely unite thy body with this man thy lord. So shall ye, full of years, address thy company.
The bridegroom says to the bride:
I take thy hand in mine for happy fortune that thou mayst reach old age with me thy husband.
Gods, Aryaman, Bhaga, Savitar, Purandhi, have given thee to be my household’s mistress.
(The names in these extracts are the names of Vedic gods.)
Life in this world is ended by death. Whereas it is uncertain whether a man and wife will have a child or not, it is quite certain that if a child is born, it will die some day. Death is the most certain event for any living creature. It is a solemn event. Hence a funeral service is a solemn service. The funeral hymns of the Hindus seem to indicate that the very early custom of burial was changed to cremation after the Aryans settled in India. Cremation is the Hindu custom to this day. Here are some verses from the Ṛg-veda:
The priest, addressing death:
Depart, O Death; go thy way — the path which is thine own, far removed from that of the gods.
To thee I speak, that hast eyes, hast ears: harm not our children nor our men.
Addressing the dead man:
Hie thee to Earth, the Mother; to the wide-spread, blessed Earth; to the pious man she is a maiden soft as wool; may she guard thee from evil.
Open wide, O Earth, oppress him not. Be gracious unto him; shelter him kindly, cover him, Earth, even as a mother covers her infant with a garment.
I have heaped up the earth around thee, and may this clod not hurt thee as I place it over thee. May the fathers guard this house, and Yama prepare thee a dwelling in the world beyond.
Addressing the god of fire:
Scorch him not, consume him not, O Agni; rend not his skin or limbs. When thou hast matured him, convey him to the fathers.
The Hindus cremate the corpse, after it has been washed, perfumed and decked with flowers, within a day of the man’s death. The dead man’s nearest relative, usually his eldest son, lights the funeral pyre.
Every day is a holy day for the Hindus, and each day has its appropriate ceremony or its festival. If a Hindu tried to be strictly orthodox and observe all the ceremonies and festivals prescribed for him, he might possibly find himself deprived of the time and energy to attend adequately to his daily business.
Of all the festivals, Dipavali, usually called Divali, the festival of lights, is one of the most popular. It is the chief holiday of the merchant caste. It falls in October–November and marks the New Year Day of the Hindus who follow the Vikram Era, which begins in 57 B.C. One legend has it that good King Rāma’s coronation took place on this day on his return to his capital Ayodhya, on the banks of the Gogra, after he had defeated Ravaṇa the wicked King of Lanka (Ceylon).
The festival is so named because the main feature of the celebration is the illuminations. Lakṣmī, the goddess of wealth, and Kṛṣṇa the Divine Incarnation, are worshipped on this day. Presents are given freely to everybody. Children particularly delight in seeing the fireworks and in eating the sweets. Everywhere there are pageants of adults and children, dressed in their gayest, crowding fairs and temples and open spaces. The merchants renew their account books, whitewash their offices, and make excellent New Year resolutions, most or all of which will be re-made the following Divali day.
When fighting Ravaṇa, King Rāma observed a fast for nine days worshipping the goddess Durgā. On the eighth day he killed Ravaṇa, spent the ninth day performing a thanksgiving service and started his journey back to Ayodhya on the tenth day. This is commemmorated in the Daśara festival which is special to the warrior caste. It is also known as Durgā Pūjā or worship of Durgā and as Navarātra, the nine nights. The goddess is worshipped as an unmarried girl. The worshippers are supposed to fast, or to take only one meal a day. Those whose faith is not strong enough may fast for fewer days. In some parts of India children begin their education on Daśara day. It is also considered a favourable day on which to begin a war! It falls in September–October. Broadly, all these festivals are intended to represent the triumph of good over evil, of knowledge over ignorance.
Private worship plays a much greater part than public worship in the lives of the 350 millions of Hindus to-day, as it always has done. The mode of worship is according to the sect. The family shrine is carefully tended every day by the devout Hindu — it is rare to meet a Hindu who is not devout — and the sacred household fire is kept burning. God is worshipped both as Father and as Mother. There are innumerable forms under which God is worshipped: as a member of the Divine Trinity, such as or Viṣṇu or Śiva; or as the Divine Mother, Kālī or Durgā; or as one of the Divine Consorts, Lakṣmī or Saraswatī or Pārvatī; or as an Incarnation of God, such as Rāma or Kṛṣṇa; or in some other of His many forms. An image or picture is used to represent the chosen form. Short prayers from the Vedic texts are recited, and a simple form of worship is carried out.
There are innumerable wayside shrines all over India for devotions by the passer-by. A small lamp, kept alight as far as possible, a garland of flowers, or some other votive objects may often be seen at such shrines. At dawn and after sunset, each a twilight period, a short prayer is offered, or one sits in quiet meditation. No images are then used. Here are a few examples of Hindu prayers:
The forms of worship in temples are highly developed rituals, too complex to be described here. The form of deity chosen for worship depends upon the nature of the worshipper. Does he feel towards God like a man to his Creator, or servant to master, or friend to friend, or child to parent, or parent to child, or lover to beloved? Again, does the worshipper mainly think of God as Father-Creator, or as Lover-Preserver, or as Destroyer-Regenerator? Such considerations give some idea of the remarkable extent to which Hinduism provides for the needs of its people. A very popular ritual is known as worship with five ingredients, which are:
To these five ingredients, a sixth is added, when required, namely, some food, signifying an actual realization of the worshipper’s unity with God. This consecrated food may be distributed and eaten, as is done in the observances of other religions, such as Zarathustrianism and Christianity.
We saw earlier that Varnāśrama Dharma, the socio-religious way of life, was Hinduism in practice. By carrying out your duties to your family and community, you fulfilled the law of loving your neighbour. If you were a doctor you healed the sick; if a teacher, you taught; if a merchant with wealth, you helped the needy; and so on in every walk of life. You were never supposed to refuse your services. If you were a doctor, you had to treat any sick man who came to you, whether he could pay or not, whether he was a friend or an enemy. If you refused to do your duty, you went against your own inmost nature as a doctor: you denied your dharma, and that was sin. Thus the teaching that you should always do your duty was in fact love in action, without sentimentality. Hindus being human beings like any other human beings, often fail to live up to the pure teachings. Fortunately, reformers constantly arise, and exert a powerful purifying influence.
If you succeeded in performing your duties, you not only loved your neighbour but you proved you also loved God, whatever your own ideas or beliefs about God might be. This leads us to consider one of the many unusual features of Hindu teaching. Hinduism concentrates very strongly on God living in each and every human being. God is constantly seeking himself in man. He is born again and again as a Great Teacher in this world in order to redeem man from ignorance and sin, and to teach man the path to ultimate union with Himself. The evil man is the man who prevents the spark of God inside himself from becoming a glowing light. The saint is the man who so loves the world and man and God, that God is seen in his thoughts and words and deeds.
Hinduism allows several meanings for the word God, out of consideration for the different powers of understanding of different people. We can see how sensible and kind this is by trying an experiment. Ask yourself the question: What do I mean by God? Then notice what sort of picture comes up in your mind… If you continue inquiring, you may soon begin to feel confused, worried, frightened… Do not be afraid. For the truth of God cannot be made untrue by our ignorance or fear or doubt or anything that we go through. At the same time, let us never forget that the Truth of God cannot be known without sincerely trying to know… Merely being told that God is this, that or the other, though a first step, does not make us really know… The Hindus understood that just as you can really know the taste of rice and curry only by eating rice and curry, even so you can really know the deep teachings of religion, especially the truth of God, only by living the religious life. This means living the good life… by developing morally and by purifying the mind. One of the most important aspects of mental purification is finding out our prejudices, preconceptions, and assumptions, and inquiring whether they have anything to do with truth and love and goodness. If they have not, then by getting rid of them we purify the mind. This purification is one of the greatest tasks in yoga.
Not all people have the opportunity or the capacity to develop very deep understanding… Between these extremes is a vast number who have a strong feeling for worshipping God, and a certain average intelligence for understanding the nature of God. To suit all types, Hinduism has an astonishingly rich variety of presentations of God: as a Person; as a Divine Being who is perfect in every way; as a Being who is beyond all qualities; as Male; as Female; as Male-Female; as an Impersonal or Supra-personal Being; as It; as Creator separate from His creation, that is, ourselves and the world, but related to it; as Creator of a creation which is part of Him; as wholly other than us and the world; as the only, absolute Reality, whilst we and the universe are an illusion, and so on, in great, indeed in bewildering, variety.
Whilst this caters for different levels of development, it makes it very difficult for the student who inquires, “What is the Hindu teaching about God?” Let us, therefore, look at some of the not-too-difficult teachings.
In Bombay harbour there is a very small island called Elephanta, which has a cave temple containing a huge, marvellous piece of sculpture called the Trimūrti, or Triple Image. It represents Īśvara, or God as the active, Personal God, named Nārāyaṇa, in His threefold form, the Hindu Trinity of Brahma-Viṣṇu, Śiva. Brahma, the Father of all men, in relation to spirit, represents Being or Truth; in relation to matter, his function is that of Creator, and he represents activity or motion.Viṣṇu, in relation to spirit, represents wisdom, love and the power of thought; in relation to matter, he is the Preserver and he represents harmony and rhythm. Śiva, in relation to spirit, represents bliss, the joy of creation, the peace that passes understanding, Nirvana; in relation to matter, his is the task of changing the old order by taking it to pieces (hence is called the Destroyer), transforming it and regenerating it into a new order. Śiva is thus the Destroyer-Regenerator.
The three aspects, Brahma-Viṣṇu Śiva, of the one supreme Being are thought of as male. The Hindus had observed that life is full of polarities: north-south, positive-negative, day-night, male-female. They also saw that the process of creation went on because there was this polarity, and that each pole was indispensable for the process. So they complemented each of the male aspects of the Deity with a female counterpart, who was the creative potency of the male, his śakti. Thus the śakti of Brahma, the Creator, is Saraswatī, goddess of learning and wisdom, and patroness of the fine arts. The śakti of Viṣṇu is Lakṣmī, also called Śrī, symbolizing worldly prosperity and good fortune. The śakti of Śiva, in his Destroyer aspect, is Durgā, and in his benign aspect, Umā or Pārvatī, symbolizing spirituality and purity. Since it is the passage of time which leads to decreptitude and destruction and death, Śiva, as Destroyer, is also known as Mahākāla or Total-time; the corresponding śakti, Kālī, is the ender of time itself, of the whole cosmos including the gods, and is thus the giver of Nirvana in eternity.
There are many such gods and goddesses spoken of in the Hindu scriptures, receiving worship from those whose needs and feelings incline them to worship particular gods or goddesses. Naturally one is inclined to say, somewhat hastily: “These Hindus are polytheistic”, or, “They know nothing of the one, true God”. To understand this rightly, notice how, in Christianity, the One God is spoken of as God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost; or it is said, “God is our refuge”, “God is love”, and so on. Now to each aspect, in which, so to say, the part of God is emphasized, the Hindus gave a special name. Hence so many names sprang into common use. Īśvara is about the nearest in meaning to the Christian word ‘God’, a personal and active Being. Viṣṇu is called Īśvara, various lesser beings are called devas, such as the gods of the Ṛg-veda. Indra, god of thunder; Varuṇa, of the sky; Agni, of fire; Soma, of immortality; and Brahmanaspati, of prayer. This last name is similar to the most sacred name in all Hinduism, namely, Brahman.
If we inquire into the origin of all separate things in the world, we talk of compounds and elements, then molecules and atoms, then protons and electrons, and so on, till we end up, nowadays, with energy. We know various forms of energy — electricity, heat etc. But energy itself? The wise scientist gives a friendly smile! Instead of energy, the Hindus used the world prakṛiti, meaning something like root-nature, out of which the whole universe came into being. What made prakṛiti become the universe? God, the Spirit, or Puruṣa. So, because of Puruṣa and prakṛiti, the whole universe, ourselves, devas, and whatever else there may be, all came into being.
The Hindus taught that universe succeeded universe; a constant out-going and returning followed by a rest, fancied as an out-breathing and in-breathing and a holding of the breath of God, repeated continuously. The Hindus asked: What is the origin of both Puruṣa and prakṛiti? They answered, Brahman. Of course, Brahman itself must remain indescribable, apart from saying that Brahman is the Absolute and Infinite and Eternal. It is impossible for our minds to form any clear idea of words like absolute, infinite, and eternal. If you are sensitive, the world Brahman may affect you in the same way as would the phrase Very God of Very God. If you care deeply enough to come closer to the truth of Brahman, then study the necessary amount only (or else, you will merely become a dull, over-learned scholar), and, most necessary, constantly practise meditation and yoga, or prayer and contemplative religious disciplines.
If it is asked, “Is Brahman the same as God who is a Personal Being?”, the answer is that Brahman is the origin of God who is a Personal Being. If it is asked, “Is Brahman an Impersonal It, a creative force, a supra-Personal Being, Pure Consciousness, etc. ?”, the answer is that Brahman is the origin of all these. In other words, God as the Ultimate Reality is beyond logical understanding, beyond our power to express in words. Whatever we say about God, even if what we say is true, can express only a tiny fragment of God. The Hindus understood this very well, and so they taught that reverent silence is true worship of Brahman.
We may well ask, “How, then, did the Hindus arrive at the mystery, or even have a distant vision, of this supreme reality called Brahman?” This takes us to the inmost heart of Hinduism. The Hindus first asked, thousands of years ago, “What am I?” How easily and how constantly we use the word ‘I’ all through our speaking and thinking, and even in our sleep, in dreams! And how terribly and overwhelmingly does this ‘I’ absolutely dominate our lives! What is this ‘I’? Have you ever seriously tried to find out ? Is it the body? Feelings? Thoughts? Mind? Soul? Consciousness? Or some of these taken together, or all of these in combination? Attack the question another way: Is the ‘I’ mortal or immortal? Has it form, shape, substance, or is it formless and immaterial? Is it spirit or matter? What is it?
Now the Hindus discovered that you cannot arrive at an answer satisfactory to yourself if you try to answer “What is the ‘I’?” in your ordinary state of mind and with your present mental faculties. You must first develop an unusual faculty, namely, that of being able to hold the mind completely still, while you are fully awake. Try it. What is happening in your mind now? Is there not a continuous stream of impressions, feelings, pictures, and thoughts? A continuous stream of words? You say, “But that is quite natural, for I am awake and conscious, not unconscious”. Perfectly right. But now suppose you can really stop that continuous stream of words and tunes and pictures in your mind, make the mind perfectly still, and also remain wide awake and not fall asleep like the disciples of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. In what manner, then, will you be conscious?
Far from becoming vague or blank or unconscious, you will become superconscious. Then you will ‘know’ in quite a different way from the way in which you know with your ordinary consciousness in everyday life. Everything appears to be transformed. You become ‘transfigured’, as the great religions say of their great teachers. Thereupon the ‘I’, or ‘the Self’, is experienced in an utterly different way from the way in which you ordinarily think, or rather try to think, of the ‘I’. Now many of the great Hindu teachers, on becoming ordinarily conscious again after experiencing superconsciousness, taught their disciples that the ‘Real Self’ cannot be described in words. We cannot say it is good or bad, matter or spirit, formed or formless, living or lifeless, because whatever words we use would misrepresent it, or at best give an incomplete or blurred glimpse of the reality. Therefore, these teachers said: “Let us give this Real Self a name — Ātman — purely to enable us to talk about it when necessary, and let us say that the Ātman is ‘not this, not that’; in short, that no descriptive word can be applied to it. The best thing we may say about the Ātman is ‘It is’.”
The Ātman is known by being experienced superconsciously. It is quite a mistake to say it can be known by introspection, which, in its usual meaning, is carried out in ordinary consciousness. Now those Hindu teachers, by entering the superconscious state and realizing the Ātman, made the wonderful awe-inspiring discovery that in realizing the Ātman they had also realized Brahman. In other words, Brahman was not only Brahman, but was also man’s very essence, namely, the Ātman. Thus, the Ātman is the absolute foundation of man’s eternal hope. Our most real nature is God, a divine potential hidden within us. Remove the outer obstructions, and that hidden potential will blossom out as the visible, active Son of God. We must make the effort and aspire to the holy life, and the grace of God crowns the effort and aspiration by enabling us to cross over all sin and sorrow. This is resurrection and ascension after we have died to all sin. This is Nirvana. And such is the teaching of the Vedas and the Upaniṣads, the oldest and most sacred of the Hindu scriptures.
When you enter the superconscious state, you are conscious in an immortal manner. In the ordinary state, you are conscious of an event or a mood or a thought as something which begins and then comes to an end, as if it were a birth and a death. Then you are conscious of the next thought or thing — the next birth and death. We may describe this as being conscious in the manner, or mode, of mortality. But to become superconscious, you have to succeed in stopping this succession of births and deaths, while still remaining wide awake, in full control of yourself. You now become conscious in a different mode, the mode of immortality, of not-mortality. Immortality thus really means experiencing existence superconsciously, here and now.
In the superconscious state, you are united with God. The great Hindu teachers said of their own experience of such union: “Pratyagātman (my Self, or I) and Paramātman (the Supreme Self, or God) are one.” Centuries later, Jesus said: “I and my Father are one.” As long as you stay in the superconscious state, you experience ‘eternal life’, ‘divine bliss’, and ‘the peace that passeth understanding’. The superconscious state is what we really mean by being in the presence of God, in heaven; it is also the real meaning of conquering death.
Just a little earlier, we talked of a succession of births and deaths in our own daily, mental life. This is a real, and probably the most sensible, meaning of the doctrine of rebirth, sometimes called reincarnation. Some scholars use other terms also — metampsychosis, transmigration, palingenesis, metensomatosis — in connection with that doctrine that you are born again and again in this world. Now, when we talk of the succession of births and deaths, most people do not mean the succession in our own minds, as taught in the Maitri and the Śaṇḍilya Upaniṣads. They mean that some time after your body is dead, your soul, or ego, or whatever it is that is supposed to survive as the real ‘you’, will reappear in this world in another body. After ‘you’ have lived that life, ‘you’ will be born again in a new body, and so on. This is the popular belief.
Why must this happen? The Hindus taught that God is perfectly just, besides being loving and merciful. Therefore justice must ultimately prevail throughout His creation. Perfect law governs universal process. The action of such and such a force brings such and such a result. Several forces will produce a net result. Again, if such and such be sown, that and that alone will be duly reaped. This law — that whatever happens is the correct result of all the forces, both material and spiritual, at work — is called the law of karma. The literal meaning of karma is action. Thought is mental action, speech is verbal action, and a deed is physical action. What we call the mercy or grace of God, or anything which we attribute to God, is spiritual or divine action. It is quite wrong to say that the law of karma is merely a law of retribution.
The Hindus also taught that the purpose of our existence is that we should so purify and develop ourselves, fulfil all our duties and continuously worship God, that the Divine Spark in each of us, which started its mighty evolutionary journey darkly shrouded by our human ignorance and failings, will finally be superconsciously reunited in glorious triumph with God. But we are not exactly perfect at this moment, are we? And the process of purification is obviously long and slow, is it not? Therefore, one lifetime being too short, we need many lives before we can become united with God. During any particular life, we reap the good results of our good thinking, feeling, speaking, and doing in the past, and also the bad results of our bad thinking, feeling, speaking, and doing in the past. So, whilst there is suffering because of our wrong doing, there is always a chance for us because of our good doing. Step by step, striving for the good in thought and word and deed, we gradually overcome the evil. In this great task, we are constantly helped, not only by the great teachers and by those who are more advanced than ourselves, but also by God. For God, said the Hindu devotees and saints, comes speedily to us with giant strides in answer to every little step we take towards Him.
These doctrines of karma and rebirth helped people to feel that life was not unfair. “I myself must have done evil in the past to find myself in trouble now, and I myself must have done some good in the past to merit the good I enjoy now…” That is how the faithful Hindu feels. Thus, by affirming the justice of God and life, these doctrines give courage and comfort to sufferers, and encourage everyone to live the good life…
In dealing with Hinduism, the world’s oldest and most comprehensive religion, within the limits of a single chapter, we can only look into a few of its main points. We must not, however, fail to notice one of its most interesting aspects, namely, yoga. Everyone knows the word yoga, but only a few really know what it is. Too many foolish statements have been made about it, such as “Yoga is sitting upon a board studded with sharp spikes”. It is true that you may see a strange person or two in India actually doing this; but sitting on sharp spikes is not a pleasant or even a mildly attractive pastime. It certainly is not yoga.
The word yoga means ‘joining’. You and God are joined, or, at-one-d. Yoga is the practical method by which your at-one-ment with God is realized. What is this practical method? It is a discipline of the body and of the mind. If you really love someone, you want to know him more and more perfectly, to help him, to serve him, and to make him happy. To do so, you get rid of all obstructions between him and yourself, such as your own selfishness, or your inattention to what he wants. Now you cannot get close to God unless you can pay attention to God. Think again of the experiments we tried earlier: inquiring what the word God means to you, and what the ‘I’ is. If you try to concentrate your mind on God, you will find that hardly a minute passes by before your mind has wandered off to something else. This something else will all too often concern your own little ego! Frequently, the body will distract you — a sneeze, a cough, or a dozen other things. The purpose, then, of yogic physical training is not to make you a prize athlete, but to give you the power to let the body remain perfectly quiet for a long time-even for hours — and not distract the mind. Such training, incidentally, can make the body wonderfully healthy and possessed of remarkable powers of endurance.
The mental discipline is decidedly the more important part. First, there must be moral perfection, and all the virtues must be developed. Without becoming free from sin, you cannot see God. Jesus taught the same: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The moral development is the indispensable basis of all yoga. It is the first and most important step and the firm foundation for further progress. Further, we learn to get rid of all our own desires and ambitions, because they are obstructions to the divine will. When we are free of personal desires, then only can we see what is really the best thing to strive for in the particular situation. In other words, we advance to the stage of “Thy will, O Lord, not mine, be done”.
Next, we come to an extremely important aspect of intellectual purification. Have you noticed that when you make any judgment — that is good, or right, or mistaken, etc. — or when you decide upon something — “I should not associate with him”, “I should love to do that” etc. — there is always some assumption or preconception, some bias or prejudice of yours which underlies your judgment or decision? Now, as you grow morally and intellectually, you will find that every bias or prejudice is harmful to some neighbour or other and also to yourself; and that every preconception and assumption is a barrier to further discovery of the truth if you totally refuse to modify your assumption or preconception in the light of further knowledge. You must learn not to kill living faith by shutting it up within the concrete walls of rigid, unchanging, verbal expressions of truth. The letter kills the spirit. When the mind grasps the truth more clearly, change the verbal statement in order to express the truth more accurately.
How do you set about this task? By watchfulness. Experiment with this by spending a few minutes each day alone by yourself. Watch the feelings and thoughts, the desires and fantasies, as they naturally arise in your mind. As you watch them, you will find yourself attracted or repelled, and pronouncing judgement on them: good, wicked, exciting, dull, etc. Inquire why you pronounce judgement, and why you have this or that standard of judgement. You will find at first that this watchfulness is confusing, even terrifying; you will also find it stimulating, even gripping. If you persevere in this three-or-four-minute practice each day, it will reveal your inner nature to you: it will purify your whole being and take you nearer to freedom and truth; and if you are sincere enough, and sensible and strong enough, it will take you to the very heart of all religion, for it will lead you to the innermost spirit, God within you.
Briefly, and broadly speaking, that is the essential part of yoga. Since all people are not of one type only, there are four general classifications: for the active type there is karma yoga, or yoga by continuously performing good deeds in a spirit of detachment and dedication; for the devotional type there is bhakti yoga, or yoga through the adoration of God and the loving service of man - Hinduism insists that God is embodied in man; for the man of knowledge there is jñāna yoga, or yoga through wisdom and spiritual insight; and for that rare type of person who combines in himself love, wisdom, and action, there is raja yoga, the ‘kingly’ yoga. These groups are not rigidly separate, but combine together to a certain extent. A moment’s thought will show why they must combine: it is impossible, for example, to perform good actions without a proper share of wisdom and love.
Having laid firm foundations morally and intellectually, the task of developing attentiveness to God becomes easier. At least two important points must be remembered. You must be free of the lust for the personal attainment of union with the Divine, with Brahman. A man may storm the ramparts of heaven; but man is not the Lord of heaven! It is the Divine who bestows the bliss of union. Therefore not lust for the personal attainment of union, but the utter sacrifice of self to the Divine is necessary for the fulfilment of yoga. The other important point is that there should be no preconception of God, for then you will mistake your at-one-ment with your preconception, your own little picture (idol) of God, for union with the Real Divine.
This attentiveness to God culminates in superconsciousness when the flow of thought and feeling and all sense impressions is deliberately stopped. In this at-one-ment with the Divine, the goal of yoga and also of mysticism, man experiences spiritual and religious fulfilment here and now. Such fulfilled men, such perfected, holy ones, are founders of great religions. They are the great teachers. Such were some of the ṛṣis of the Vedas…; such were many of the great teachers of the Upaniṣads… Writers sadly mislead their readers when they refer to these great teachers merely as thinkers or philosophers or poets, and fail to point out that they were perfected, holy ones who had realized God.
The great Hindu teachers taught that after you had passed the stage of the beginner, you should not believe anything merely because any teacher, however great his authority, or any book, however sacred, had taught it. You had to test everything. Why? Have you not noticed that if you learn something parrot-fashion you really know very little about it? For example, if you merely memorize a fine passage from Milton or Shakespeare, you cannot explain it clearly to another person, because your own mind has not yet grasped all the richness of thought and feeling in those lines. But if you ask the right questions and make a thorough investigation… the inner meaning becomes clearer and you are enlightened. Why? Because the right questioning leads your mind to the truth. Hinduism, like Buddhism, is imbued with the scientific spirit. You must constantly test by experiment what you first hear from others, and win your convictions by actual experience. The truth is not in the dead letter of the printed word, but in your purified, living mind. And the pure, living mind is an energetic and growing, and not a stagnant or stultified, mind.
Hinduism strongly emphasizes the value of living in the world and bringing up a family. Afterwards, if you long to live the ascetic life, you may do so and observe the most perfec type of asceticism, as described in some of the 108 Upaniṣads. There is a widespread, mistaken idea that Hinduism regards sex as evil. The teaching is this: sex is a sacred, procreative function; husband and wife must always approach sexual love with the utmost reverence; every form of irreverent, lewd, sexual indulgence is evil; sex itself is perfectly natural, pure, and beautiful.
When should you put aside all sexual expression? When you have decided to live the anchorite’s life, and aspire to develop spiritually and wholly devote your life to God. Because of their extraordinary power to distract your attention, sexual expression and desire, and especially sexual fantasies and memories, are the most powerful hindrances to your attempts to experience the deeper states of consciousness in meditation or prayer, culminating in superconsciousness or union with God.
So the problem is simply this: if your whole interest is to experience union with God, then you must wholly put aside sexual desire and expression; otherwise, as a married man or woman, sexual love has its perfectly right and holy place in your life. Such is the simple truth.
One of the most valuable features of Hinduism is its inclusiveness. No one has the monopoly of the whole truth. All religions, say the Hindus, are paths to God. Again and again God appears on earth to teach and redeem mankind. The idea of a supreme and final revelation is not acceptable… The Hindus say that man has a long stretch yet ahead of him — several millions of years — and science is not in disagreement with such an estimate. So God will appear again and again in the future and give fresh revelation. None of the founders of the great religions expressly declared that a final revelation had been given and that God would not appear again elsewhere. Such a declaration is made by the teacher’s followers, ordinary men and women who are not so close to God as the founder himself.
In his divine incarnation as Śrī Kṛṣṇa, the Lord taught:
Whenever there is decay of righteousness and there is exaltation of unrighteousness, then I Myself come forth.
For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evil-doers, for the sake of establishing righteousness, I am born from age to age.
To emphasize the fact that all religious paths lead in the end to God, the Lord taught:
Howsoever men approach Me, even so do I welcome them, for the path men take from every side is Mine.
Here, indeed, is hope for every person, not merely for a select few or ‘the converted’. All people in the whole world are the Chosen People, whoever they are, for God is the Father of all without exception. All people will reach God in the end, for the Hindus believe that after death the soul experiences heaven or purgatory or hell for a while, and then is born again to continue the pilgrimage to perfection and bliss, till it comes to rest in eternal God.