1. A Simplistic Overview of Hinduism
Hinduism is an ancient religion and one of the major religions of the world. To present it in a single essay is a formidable task. We shall highlight only the bare essentials and that too, without any sophistication.
The first distinguishing feature is that it has no founder who started the religion. Also there is no single event or sequence of events which may be cited as responsible for the founding, if any, of the religion. In this sense it differs from every other religion of the world.
According to the Vedas which are the supreme authority for everything in Hinduism, there is only one God. You may call Him by any name and give Him any form. The wise call Him by any one of several names. He is present everywhere and at all times. To refer to God as a ‘He’, is by itself an unintended compromise. It could be a ‘She’ also. To recognize this, the scriptures speak very often of Godhead rather than God and refer to that Absolute Godhead as ‘It’. (For more on the Absolute, click here).
This unique Godhead, this Divinity, is in everything that we see, hear, smell, touch or feel. It is in every inanimate object and also in every animate being. It is in our heart of hearts. But then why don’t we see It, Him or Her? Why don’t we feel the presence of this Godhead in us? It is because our minds are so impure.
If we can get rid of all the impurities from the innermost recesses of our hearts,
Hinduism asserts, we can certainly see God
reflected in the crystalline purity of our heart and mind.
To be able to see it and live in the constant awareness of the presence of that Divinity
is the purpose of life.
In that living presence of the reflection of God in our mind, we must get tuned to the frequency of the call of that Divinity and be of service to society; – this is what we are for.
Anything that we do which encourages or is concordant with the above process of realisation of God’s presence in us is called puNya or spiritual merit. Anything that we do or think that takes us away from that realisation is called pApa or spiritual sin. Truth, non-violence, humility, compassion, sympathy, unselfish service to society, helping the poor, the depressed and the sick – these are certainly among the well-known puNyas of Hinduism, as in any other religion. If one accumulates a large amount of extraordinary puNya to his credit he goes to heaven after death, to enjoy, for a specified period of time, the fruits of his puNya. If one accumulates a large amount of extreme sin he goes to Hell, to suffer the punishment for all that sin, again for a specified period.
But the large majority of humanity does not belong to either category and are only a mixture of ordinary puNyas and ordinary sins. This large majority of people are born again in this world. This last one is the second most distinguishing feature of Hinduism.
Everyone who is born has to die some time or other. But when the body dies the soul does not die.
Important note: When we use the word 'soul' in Sanatana Dharma, it is not the same as the 'soul' commonly known in English or other western writing. The 'soul' of Sanatana Dharma has properties totally different and distinguished from the 'soul' in occidental understanding.
The soul is born again in another body. The mind also goes along with the soul, though it does not remember what it did in the previous body. The mind and soul, together individualized in this fashion, go on from body to body again and again. This is the unique principle of transmigration. When the soul travels like this from body to body, carrying along with it the mind which has in some sense, irrevocably, attached itself to it, the mind, on its own, carries a heavy luggage within itself, namely all the imprints of pure and impure impressions of memories and experiences which it has collected in each of its sojourns in a body. The mind is like the wind which carries the smell of a rose garden through which it has blown , even long after it has left the garden. Like the wind which has passed through a filthy and stinking place, the mind carries the stink that it has collected in its previous births and lives, into succeeding births. The soul knows no good or bad, but the mind which is with it carries all the good and bad imprints in it, which reflect themselves as the tendencies of the person in his present birth. A mind which has in its previous births helped the poor, has been sympathetic, compassionate and noble, carries such tendencies in its future lives. This is why we see some people from their very birth are very noble and gentle and some people, if we may say so, stink! Thus are born the tendencies and in-born nature of people. These tendencies are known technically as vAsanAs.
VAsanA means smell. So the smell of purity or of impurity which one carries from one’s actions in one’s previous lives is what distinguishes person from person even though each has the same pure Divinity in oneself. This cycle of transmigration of soul and mind will end only when man realises the presence of Divinity in himself and ‘reaches’ God. This will happen when his inner mind is devoid of all imprints of any kind whatsoever, in other words, devoid of allvAsanAs. This is the state of Salvation of Man. Thereafter he never has to be born again. Even souls which go to Heaven or Hell because of an extreme merit or demerit, have to come back to be born as human beings on earth in order to continue on their path of evolution. The ultimate destination of all souls is to merge in the Supreme Presence of God.
God is the only Reality which is ever present, in the past, in the present and in the future. Anything else is transient. The only Truth is God and He has no name or form. He is therefore an Impersonal Absolute, though we have used the pronoun He here. Anything that we see is His creation. When we think of Him as the Creator, we call Him Brahma (pronounced brahmA). Anything that is created has to be dissolved. When God takes up this function of Dissolution or Destruction we call Him Siva (pronounced ‘shiva’ – where the sh denotes the palatal ‘s’ in the German word sprechen - , not ‘siva’ – where the ‘s’ is as in ‘sun’ or the ‘ss’ in ‘hiss’ - noor as ‘Shiva’ – where the ‘Sh’ is as in the English word ‘Show’ -). When we think of Him as our protector and savior we call Him Vishnu (pronounced viShNu). The same unique Godhead of Hinduism has three major functions. The three Gods of these functions form a Trinity. But actually there is only one God which we speak of as three. Whether we worship Brahma, Vishnu or Siva, we are worshipping the same Absolute Godhead.
Since God is present in all beings and in all creations of His, He is present in all Nature. Every inanimate object is also a manifestation of His presence. So we can worship Him in any form whatsoever. This is the basis of idol worship in Hinduism and this is the third most distinguishing feature of Hinduism. God is worshipped through images, or idols or pictures of Him as imagined by us. Usually a newcomer to Hinduism is confused about this idol worship. An idol is like the flag for an army. The flag is not the country but it definitely stands for the country and one is prepared to die for it. So also an idol is a symbol of God. In fact, any symbol is good enough. The mind cannot worship in abstraction. So Hinduism says:
Worship God in any form you like, the form is not important.
The name is not to be debated.
It is the intensity of devotion to God that matters.
It is the attitude of worship, called bhakti, in Sanskrit, that is of real consequence. Any one of the three Gods of the Trinity can be worshipped in this way and each such worship will purify the mind, which is the objective of all worship. Worshipping an idol in the tradition of Hinduism does not mean we are worshipping that inanimate object as God in a pagan way, but it means that we are worshipping the omnipresent Divinity in the form of the idol before us. We are worshipping God in the idol and not the idol as God.
There is another distinguishing feature of Hinduism which is present in no other religion. Just as the three Gods of the Trinity, namely, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are only the same unique Godhead manifested in different functions and forms so also there arfe otgher manifestations of God in the mythological history of India. God’s Will is supreme. So whenever He wants He can appear in this world as a concrete person or being in flesh and blood. This he has done many times. In fact, every time there has been a decline of natural order in the Universe, every time there has been a rise of cruelty and evil, God has manifested Himself. Each such appearance is called an avatar. ‘Avatar’ means descent. The Impersonal Absolute Godhead descends, as it were, to the level of ordinary concrete universe and makes its presence felt in flesh and blood. The Perfect God takes on, it seems, an imperfection in itself to appear as a living being in order to take us imperfect beings, on the onward path to Perfection! So whenever such an event takes place, as when the Son of God appeared on earth, the people of that time who had the beatific experience of God’s proximate presence, consider themselves very fortunate and worship Him as God. An this is how, every avatar, in Hinduism, has come to be worshipped as God. These avatars are the closest approximations to Divinity for us, who cannot see Him ourselves.
Once He appeared as Man-Lion (actually it was half-man, half-lion) -- the Sanskrit word being ‘narasimha’ – In order to put an end to the extreme cruelty which a very powerful but inhuman king was perpetrating on the world. In fact the son of this King, just a five-year-old boy, was very devoted to Lord Vishnu but the King in his arrogance wanted himself to be recognised as the only God, the God, of this universe. After many futile attempts to convert this little boy to his viewpoint, the King asked the child to show him this God Vishnu whom he was worshipping. In extreme desperation he showed a pillar and asked : Is your God in this pillar? The son, Prahlada, with supreme confidence in the omnipresence of the Lord, said YES.
And lo and behold!
God obliged His devotee by appearing
In the concrete form of a
From that pillar!
This Man-lion proved to be the end of the King.
The fact that He appeared as a Man-Lion itself has a history behind it. In short, it was because the King, by his own supernatural prowess was under a beneficient spell that he could never be killed by any human being or by any being of the animal kingdom. This Man-Lion Avatar of Godx, which occurred for a very specific purpose, is one of the earliest Avatars of Vishnu in the mythology of India. It shows the efficacy of a full-fledged hundred per cent faith in the omnipresence of God. Prahlada is the model of such faith.
There are two most famous Avatars of God – without a knowledge of which even a summary presentation of Hinduism is not complete. These are Rama and Krishna, the two names with which the entire Hindu India will reverberate wherever you go.
Rama and Krishna, who are the divines embedded in the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata,
are the two divinities, among all such who ever walked on earth,
who have captured the hearts of the largest number of people for the longest period of time.
In the same type of thinking,
Valmiki and Vyasa, the authors of the two epics mentioned,
are the two authors who have influenced the largest number of people
for the longest period of time,
in all of history.
Millions of years ago, there lived a King Ravana by name who was destroying all the good things that the Rishis were doing to propitiate God for the good of humanity. His powers were so great that no ordinary divine power could match him. Finally Lord Vishnu by His own Will, was born as the son in a royal family. This son of God was known as Rama. The word Rama means in Sanskrit the Ultimate Reality of everything. Rama and his consort Sita by various circumstance underwent many sufferings by living folurteen years in the forest away from civilisation and away from luxury and comfort. Finally Rama had to fight all the evil men who worked for Ravana and in the end Ravana himself was destroyed with all his clan.
This manifestation of God as Rama is a central thread in the vast fabric of Hinduism, just as Resurrection is the central kingpin of christianity. Rama and Jesus had many things in common. Both were a great colossus of humility without the least shade of arrogance. Both undertook suffering on themselves for the rest of humanity. Jesus died on the Cross so that humanity may be saved for God. Rama lived a life of truth compassion and virtue throughout his long life and showed to the world how we must not only be prepared to sacrifice but in reality renounce every single attachment of ourselves, for the happiness of the rest of the world.
The avatar of Krishna happened five thousand years ago in the city of Mathura in North India. Again it was the same purpose: Protection of the virtuous and punishment for the wicked. Krishna’s story has several parallels with the life of Jesus. The birth itself was a miracle. And in his life Krishna performed several miracles. Once he had to carry a whole hill on his shoulders in order to protect the entire community from destruction through Nature’s fury.
Krishna’s life in another sense is most important for Hinduism because He condensed all the truths and philosophy of Hinduism in a few hundreds of simple verses and taught it directly to one of the most well-known characters in the history of Hinduism, namely, Arjuna. This teaching is called the Bhagavad-Gita,the Song of the Lord or the Divine Song or Poem. In fact for those who cann ot go back to the entire Vedas to understand Hinduism, the Gita has evedrything in it. It is very much relevant in the modern context.
The final teaching of the Gita is:
Do your work in an unselfish way.
Even if your duty leads you on to do apparently unjustifiable things,
Put the burden on God and do your duty.
Do not keep on worrying about what is going to happen in the future.
Have faith in the ultimate Divinity of every being.
Love and serve every being.
Each being has the same Divinity in them as what you have in you.
If you serve God and humanity with humility and surrender to the Will of God
You have nothing to fear
Either in this life or in the after-life.
Do not be carried away by the ups and downs of everyday life.
And leave the problem of Salvation to God.
He will take care of it.
The really most distinguishing feature of Hinduism is, however, that it is a matter of faith with the Hindus to consider all religions as true. Since God can be worshipped in several forms and several ways, Hinduism considers different religions as so many paths to God. No religion should think that it is the only true religion. Each is a path to the same one God. And so there should be no hate or distrust of another religion or another point of view with respect to God. In this modern world of strife and hatred this tolerance of other religions and other points of view with respect to God is one of the major lessons that the world has to learn from the Hindu way of life. Even within Hinduism, you can choose that path which suits your taste, evolution, training and tradition. The only thing that is important is there should be no feeling of selfishness or egoism.