10. SANATANA DHARMA BASICS
Hinduism is a name given to sanatana dharma by English writers. It is probably the most ancient religion alive today. We do not even know what it was known as in those ancient times. Actually we are talking about prehistoric times when we refer to the origins of Hinduism. The one thing we know for certain is that what the Hindus consider as their most sacred literature today, viz., the vedas, go back to those times. They have come down to us almost in the same form as they were then. This is one of the first mysteries that a student learns about Hinduism.
The Vedas, collectively constitute the scriptural authority for Hinduism. The language of the vedas is Sanskrit. In fact they were never written down by anybody. They came down from generation to generation by just word of mouth. They are recited and studied in a characteristically unique way with specific intonations and accents so that there could be no interpolation or deletion of the text by any one any time. .
The text has been preserved in the same form for as long as, probably five thousand years. The earliest time when they were put to writing was the early nineteenth century when western scholars brought out the printed version of the vedas directly from the recitations given by experts.
There are actually four such vedas. The smallest of them is about three to four times as big as the New Testament. These vedas constitute the oldest piece of recorded human experiences on earth. They talk about God, about Nature, about man, morality, the Ultimate Reality of life, what happens after death, the fight that goes on in one’s mental make-up between good and evil, rituals to propitiate gods of the heavens, man’s duties to the gods of the cosmos, and so on. Finally, they contain long beautiful poems of praise of the Divine as well as several records of spiritual experiences by great thinkers called Rishis in ancient times. This last part is known by the special name of Upanishads. These are the most treasured philosophical treatises, discussions and discourses on fundamental matters of life and death, mind and soul, bondage and freedom. They analyze what is transient and ephemeral, what is permanent, what is the final truth and what is the purpose of life. Throughout, the one message that the Upanishads are never tired of repeating is: Man is essentially divine. (For more on Upanishads, go to 17 and 18
During the period of the vedas as well as in later periods of Hinduism the one basic concept that has been universally accepted is the transmigratory career of man’s soul. In other words man’s soul travels from body to body in its journey of evolution. The central core of Hindu teaching is contained in this. Though man is basically divine, the divine is clothed in material external coverings and is camouflaged by the cloud of dirt accumulated by the mind. Mind clings to the soul in a subtle way throughout its transmigratory career. Mind is a nebulous thing which keeps on accumulating impressions, memories and habits of thinking. These constitute the vAsanAs of the mind or of the person to whom it clings for the moment.
The word ‘vAsanA’ means smell. These vAsanAs are the ones which give the individual his mental personality even before his upbringing in this life starts having an impact on him. It is something over which you have no control, because it belongs to your past. This past determines your level of (spiritual) evolution as of now and also your tendencies for human behaviour. If they are bad, you have to contend with them and fight them. This is the meaning of karma theory.
As far as the future is concerned you are totally free to create new vAsanAs for yourself. But if you are going to be carried away by the already existing vAsanAs in your system and they happen to carry you into undesirable avenues, it is nobody’s fault except yourself. In this sense you are the architect of your fate. But in the sense that your tendencies are born with you and you have had no control with them when you were born, - as for instance, you did not choose your parents or your sex -- to that extent you are ruled by your fate. But again in the sense that even that fate of yours is a consequence of your own doing in your previous lives, no other force, earthly or heavenly, is to be blamed for that ‘fate’ except the previous manifestations of yourself.
Another way of saying this is: The past controls and monitors you. The future is in your hands.
In man’s journey to perfection, the ultimate aim is to shed off all these vAsanAs of the mind, so that the mind, in its pristine, unloaded crystalline purity may reflect the presence of Divinity, which the Vedas assure us, is there in every one of us. For this upward path to perfection, in addition to emphasizing certain basic virtues like humility, self-control and truth, like all other religions, Hinduism emphasizes two more, namely, non-violence and detachment.
Non-violence stems from the fact that everything is but a spark of the same divinity and so no harm should be done to anything that is living. Detachment is non-attachment to anything which is not ultimately permanent. What is impermanent? Anything that is amenable to sense-perception is impermanent. What is not amenable to sense perception? The Ultimate Reality is the one that is not amenable to sense perception. This is the common substratum of existence both in the microcosmic and in the macrocosmic universe. In other words, our body, our senses, our mind, our intellect, our possessions, our kith and kin – none of these is ultimate.
The Ultimate Substratum is in fact the essence of everything that is amenable to sense perception. This Reality is the supreme Godhead of Hinduism. There is no other, no second. It is formless, nameless and totally unaffected by anything. It just is. Brahman is the name given to this. The naming itself is a slip of rigor though intended. Brahman comes from the word ‘to transcend’ and so it connotes that which transcends everything that we know. But the moment we think of it as a God to be worshipped, we have already brought, by our limited intellect, a subject-object relationship in respect of the ultimate Godhead which has no second. We have actually violated the uniqueness of Brahman, the moment we even think of it. If we are to cite a parallel to this phenomenon in our present day experience, the only thing we may cite is modern physics. The moment we observe a subatomic particle, what we observe has already been influenced by our observation. These rules of modern physics may not apply to Brahman. But the very definition of Brahman says that you cannot predicate anything of it except that it is. You cannot say that it is large or small, black or white, you cannot point it out and say it is this or that, you cannot possess it, you cannot relate to it.
The Upanishads get out of this bottleneck by postulating what they call a saguNa brahman, meaning, brahman, with attributes. This is nothing but the Ultimate Reality viewed from our world of experience. The other name for this is Iswara. This is the Almighty that corresponds to the unique God of other religions. This Almighty is the God whom we can think of, worship, invoke, revere, relate to, pray to and in this sense the ultimate God of the Hindus. This has all the superhuman and superlative qualities that we can think of – with infinite mercy, infinite compassion, infinite grace and infinite potentialities.
But here comes a subtle point.
According to the scriptures, God is both transcendent and immanent,
omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent.
Therefore by giving it a single name or form
we are delimiting its omnipresence and transcendence.
No name or form will exclusively describe it and by that very reason, say the Vedas,
all names and forms suit it. This is the thin end of the wedge.
In other words, the totality of things that are perceptible in the universe is permeated by God. Everything is divine. Divinity is inherent in everything that we see, smell, hear, touch or feel. In fact it is in every one of us. If we are not able to see it, it is because we are governed by our sense perception. We have to transcend space and time and cease to be ourselves in order to realize its presence.
Since the common mind of man cannot comprehend this abstractness and transcendence of the nameless and formless version of God, different idols, images and concretizations enter the picture. Each one has a mythology behind it or a philosophical esoteric interpretation as its undercurrent. These myriad symbols, images and idols are only symbols, images and idols and they are not substitutes for God.
At an advanced level of understanding,
the word ‘only’ in this sentence just mentioned
may rightly be questioned. For more on this, GO TO22.2
This every thinking Hindu knows, though he may not know the exact mythological context or esoteric meaning which that idol, image or symbol carries. Each one indicates the Supreme Power inherent in every one and it is that one God which is worshipped in the form of idols and images. These images may be just stones or trees or other inanimate objects or they may be anthropomorphic replicas of a certain manifestation of that Supreme Divinity. In the course of the mythological history of India – which is actually the prehistoric period – several such manifestations of that one Godhead has taken place, sometimes for the purpose of putting an end to the colossal wickedness of a demon or sometimes for the purpose of showering divine grace on a superhuman devotee of that divinity. If anyone thinks that these different gods and goddesses are something like the Greek gods and goddesses and they are warring for supremacy among themselves, one would be totally mistaken. The principle that there is only one Godhead, that Godhead is nameless and formless and for that very reason all names and forms suit it is stated in the vedas itself and repeated many times throughout the vast scriptural literature.
This fundamental point is the most important lesson that one should learn about Hinduism, whether he grows within the environment or out of it. It is difficult to miss this lesson if one lives in India even for a short time and observes with a discerning intellect. An idol serves the same purpose for a religious devotee as a flag does for an army. again go to 22.2 for an elaboration of 'Is the idol itself the deity?'
Any worship for that matter introduces a duality between the worshipper and the worshipped and so is a comedown from the unique mental cognition of the Divinity inherent in oneself. Hinduism is human enough to admit within its fold even those ordinary mortals who cannot rise, in their understanding, above the grossly concrete representations of God. Hinduism says, in essence, each individual can worship God in whatever form that suits his competence, taste and stage of spiritual evolution.
There are certainly several rituals for religious worship. But these rituals vary in detail from region to region, from tradition to tradition and from time to time. This variety itself is because of the inherent flexibilities in the practice of Hinduism. It is further accentuated by the largeness of the subcontinent with different roots in culture that goes back to several centuries. But always the concept of worship is to first invoke the god of worship in some kind of a picture or idol or a lump of sandal paste or even some specific types of stones identified for the purpose.
The pUjA (ritual worship) begins with such an invocation. The pUjA itself consists of sixteen formalities. These include, besides the invocation, the offering of a seat, offering water for various purposes, offering water honey and milk for bath, offering cloth for dressing, offering flowers as obeisance, offering eatables, waving flaming camphor, and finally doing prostrations. The ceremonial waving of lighted camphor is called Arti. The prostration indicates a total surrender to the deity of the pUjA. The very invocation, which is the first formality, contains the essence of the Hindu teaching. It says:
Oh God! I know you are omnipresent.
But, for the purpose of my concentration and worship
Please condescend to make your presence felt here
In this idol (image, picture or stone or whatever)
For the period of the pUjA.
Maybe I am insulting your omnipresence
by requesting you to confine yourself to this form
But please pardon me, I know no other way.
All this is contained in the mantra (vedic chant) that is used for the invocation. In every formality of the pUjA, the mantra that is recited carries such high philosophical thinking within itself. Throughout, it is the attitude (Click here for more on the importance of attitudes) that matters rather than the real thing you offer. You may just offer some flowers and say that instead of the silken clothes you would like to offer to the Lord, you are offering these flowers. Similarly instead of pouring water over the image or the picture for bath you may just sprinkle some drops of water on it and say this may be taken as bath.
Incidentally, mantras are everything in Hinduism.
They can do and undo. For more on mantras click here.
The five elements being the ultimate purifier of all things in the universe, Hindu tradition uses them effectively for such purposes in all their rituals. It is mostly either water or fire. So every time something has to be purified, the relevant quotation from the scriptures is recited and water sprinkled on the deity before you. In temples where the images of gods have been built in stone or metal for this very purpose, the daily pUjA will have elaborate procedures for ritually and physically bathing the deity and is called abhisheka.
A pUjA at home may take as small a time as five minutes or as long a time as four to six hours. The eatable that you finally offer to the deity is technically called naivedya – the word simply meaning, that which is shown to God. It could be any sweet dish, fruits, coconuts or any other specially prepared dish and after thus being offered to God – which the deity does not eat, of course – is then shared by those who have attended the pUjA and their friends and well-wishers. In fact Hindu scriptures are very clear on the injunction that nothing should be eaten without first being formally offered to God, and therefore nothing should be eaten which are not offerable to God.
Flowers are one offering to God which we do not take back in full. Flowers come from nature, that is prakRti, and go back to the Lord of that prakRti, namely God. Since flowers are the only thing which we can leave wholly with the deity of worship, Hindu deity worship always emphasizes a massive use of flowers. Even the water which is used for bathing the idol is taken back in little drops as lustral water, in the hollow of the right hand and swallowed immediately. When anything is offered to God and then taken back for our use like this, it becomes prasAd, meaning Grace (of God). This takes us to the next topic, bhakti and grace.
Bhakti means devotion, but it actually connotes an attitude of intense devotion. In practice it gets exhibited in several ways. One of the most common and most recommended by the scriptures is that of reciting God’s names. There are several purposes in such a recitation: to purify oneself; to give expression to one’s bhakti; to progress on the upward path of spiritual evolution; to obtain the Grace of God for a specific material purpose; to obtain God’s Grace for the ultimate Salvation.
For such purposes of recitation of God’s names and glories there are innumerable poems of praise (stotras) in the secondary scriptural literature. The Vedas are the primary scriptures. All the others like the Ramayana, written by Valmiki, the Mahabharata, written by Vyasa and the 18 purANas and their associates all written by Vyasa are among the secondary scriptures. These poems of praise and their recitations constitute one more of the distinguishing features of Hinduism.
The practice of recitation of these stotras can be recognized to be the one vibrant chord that runs through the cultural milieu of Hindu India throughout the length and breadth of the country. Particularly after the bleak middle ages when Hinduism had to undergo several shocks from the intolerance of some of the invaders it had to face, there was a renaissance. This is the period generally from the 10th century to the 18th century when a large number of intense devotees of God appeared on the scene in different parts of India.
They preached and practised the nAma-sankIrtana (= reciting of God’s names) method of obtaining God’s Grace, in preference to the much misused and misinterpreted ritualistic tradition handed down by the Vedic age. The enormous amount of devotional literature that exists in India, both in Sanskrit and in Tamil -- which are the two most ancient languages --, but also in the other major languages of the country, has been inspired by hundreds of saints, musicians, mystics and great poets all over India, almost without a break through this period.
Some of these poems of praise in the scriptural literature are litanies of one hundred or one thousand names of God. These are full of flowing poetry, alliteration, rhythm and rich philosophical content. The names listed are those of God, extolling His majesty and splendour, omnipresence and omniscience, transcendence and immanence and His exploits in His different manifestations. To repeat these names is to enjoy the ecstasy of divine communion. In addition to these recitations, for those who are not educated in these, there are innumerable bhajans – streamlined repetitions of God’s names, which can be sung in chorus to set beats. These again were popularised by those great devotees of the renaissance period. The very popular hare krishna bhajan sung by those involved in the International Krishna Conscious Movement is an example of this tradition. These bhajans and recitations are intended to tune you to the frequency of the divine in you and rouse your divine instinct.
The fundamental belief of Hinduism being the divinity of man,
the divine instincts that are latent in oneself are touched by these bhajans and recitations
and in due time will conquer the baser instincts
which are themselves only the consequences of one’s vAsanAs
acquired in this and all previous lives.
The obtaining of God’s Grace is the much-sought-after goal of bhakti. There arfe two views in Hinduism regarding the methodology for obtaining the Grace of God.
One view which is called the monkey theory (markaTa nyAya) says that the devotee has to make enough efforts by himself for God to descend to him, just as the baby monkey has to cling to its mother of its own for being carried along.
On the other hand, the other viewpoint, which is called the cat theory (mArjAra nyAya) says that the devotee does not have to make any effort because God Himself will take care of him and do the needful. This is like the Presbyterian viewpoint in Christianity. The cat theory implies a total surrender. The weight of scriptural authority leans towards this theory. This is in fact a surrender wherein the devotee surrenders even his mind to the Lord. He has no mind of his own thereafter. One is reminded a nineteenth century Christian hymn:
Oh Lord, take my will and make it thine;
It shall no longer be mine.
Take my heart, it is thine own;
It shall be thy royal throne.
This is the Bhakti Yoga of Hinduism.