INTRODUCTION TO HINDUISM

Lecture delivered at the Parliament of World Religions

Cape Town, South Africa, December 1999

It has fallen to me today to stand before this august assembly  to present some glimpses of the Hindu religion and tradition. My scheduled presentation  for this conference is elsewhere and at another time, but because of quite unexpected circumstances, Swami Chidanada Saraswati who was to deliver this lecture, contacted me a couple of days ago and entrusted this responsibility to me. I do not presume to be a spokesman for Hinduism. Nor, perhaps, can anyone else, for such is the nature and framework of Hinduism. Nor am I a guru or a swamiji as the originally scheduled speaker is. But as one who was born and brought up as a Hindu, and as one who has had a life-long interest in its various aspects,  as also as one who has a heart-felt love for it, and cherishes the Hindu heritage, and primarily to accede to a request from a saintly person for whom I have great personal regard, I have agreed to speak to you today on such short notice.

I shall try to explain the best I can some of the highlights of a hoary religion and robust tradition which continues to breathe life and meaning to an entire civilization. 

 

Introductory Remarks

Hinduism is  one of the most ancient religions of humankind. It has prospered over many long centuries in spite of innumerable shocks and transformations, invasions and intrusions, and will last for as long as worship and devotion, prayer and penitence, feast and festivity, song and dance, survive on this green planet that is home to a myriad religions and traditions of the human family..

Unlike most other major religions, Hinduism does not have a historical beginning, either in time and in founder.  Hinduism traces its origins to  ancient  sages, called rshis, who meditated  and achieved enlightenment of spiritual truths. It is generally accepted that cosmic insights and religious wisdom were unveiled to the rishis who expressed their revelations in Sanskrit hymns called Vedas. Of which I shall say a little later.  To the Vedas may be traced many of Hindu insights and the first formulations of the sophisticated patterns of Hindu rituals: its yagńas  and sacrificial fires for the propitiation of the deities and the establishment of connections with the cosmic principles.

      More substantial roots of Hindu doctrines are to be found in the Upanishads, which are elaborations and extrapolations of Vedic visions. Through spiritual austerities and yogic efforts, the pioneers of the Vedic  tradition attained different levels of consciousness. The Upanishadic masters were not mere philosophers who wondered about life and death, or speculated about heaven and earth, but active searchers who penetrated into the core of human consciousness by dint of spiritual exercises (dhyâna). They set the standard for spirituality in the Hindu tradition: For them, spirituality is not a logically woven framework which is incontrovertibly articulated. Rather, it is an inner recognition that is to be achieved by pursuing the path of the aspirant.

      Vedic utterances to begin with, and  upanishadic aphorisms as extensions:  these are the nuggets of a perennial philosophy in the Hindu world, of a timeless knowledge of the divine that has neither beginning nor end. The invariant principles embodied in them  are therefore referred to as sanâtana dharma: eternal religion. The essence of the metaphysical, moral, and spiritual framework of the Hindu world view is embodied in the text known as the Bhagavad Gita (Divine Song) which has come to be regarded in the Hindu world with he same reverence as the Bible and the Koran in  Christian and the Islamic traditions.

Like all dynamic cultural systems, Hinduism has grown over the years, enlightened by new visions and fresh perspectives, and has undergone many transformations in its external modes, while retaining its  core insights. Hindu practice today is very different from its more ancient modes, and is even now different in different regions of India and of the world.Hinduism is a vast complex of beliefs and ideals, of practices and prejudices. Membership in the religion does not result from an active proclamation of faith, but by virtue of birth. Indeed conversion to or from Hinduism is normally looked upon with disfavor, although some modern trends are not altogether averse to aliens embracing the Hindu faith. A person who is born a Hindu may repudiate any number  of the religion's doctrinal beliefs or violate many of its sacred codes, but he or she cannot be officially excommunicated. This is one of the unique features of Hinduism and is at its very doctrinal foundation which insists that religious commitment must come from the heart as religious vision comes from awakening to a higher level of consciousness. This is not to say that people who broke the rules were never  ostracized from caste and clan. However, this was a social rather than a religious punishment.

Hinduism is generally associated with the vast majority of the inhabitants of India , but  its influence on the thinking and practices of many other peoples has not been insignificant. China and Japan , Laos and Kampuchia , Tibet and Sri Lanka , all have felt over the centuries the impact of Hindu thought directly or via its offshoot Buddhism. Nor has Western civilization been unaffected by Hinduism. Ever since Europeans began their contacts with India, travelers, thinkers and writers have imbibed many elements of the Hindu views of life and the world, and spread these among their own people in ever so many ways.

One may be inclined to think that the current interest in the West in yoga and meditation, in Krishna consciousness and other elements of Hinduism is of recent origin. As a matter of fact, interest in such matters has always been present among Westerners. There is reason to believe that even some  ancient Greek philosophers, such as Pythagoras and Plato, were influenced by Hindu thought.

 

The Trimurti

Birth, existence and death: these are the steps followed by all life. In the  Hindu world view, these stages are atributed to three cosmic principles, which are given names and forms. So arose the Hindu concept of the Trimurti: triple form.

The Trimurti stands for the birth, existence and death, not simply of individuals, but of the universe at large. It is regar­ded as the triple principle of creation, preservation and annihi­lation. One is tempted to draw a parallel between the Trimurti   and the Christian concept of the Trinity. However, aside from the number three in both, they have really little else in common. The   con­cept of the Trinity in Christianity expresses the notion that God has a triple aspect: Father,  Son and Holy Ghost. The Trimurti is an expression of an abstract idea, a deification of the cosmic forces that are believed to keep the universe emerging, evolving and dissolving in grand time spans.

The divine forms given to these abstract aspects of the world are known as: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. These are among the foremost in the Hindu pantheon.      

Brahma is seen the golden embryo whence arose Creation. No matter how we envision the  complexity of the world, the human mind will always be intrigued by the source of it all. Current physics fantasizes about symmetry breaking and phase transitions, about Planck time and the filtering of force fields. Beyond all the mythologies and th mathematics, beyond all the poetry of physics and the tales of tradition, Brahma stands for the supreme abstraction of the unfathomable mystery of Creation from which has sprung the marvelous universe we experience.

The sustaining principle in the Trimurti is Vishnu. In the Hindu vision one distinguishes between God as a cosmic principle and God as a presence among human beings. The first is an all pervading transcendental entity of which we mortals strive (or ought to strive) to become aware. The latter is an incarna­tion of the divine principle which emerges in a tangible form in our world now and again to set things staight when things go wrong. . This physical embodiment of God is an avatara, or 'descent', for it represents the descent of divinity here below.

 Viewed thus, there is not one but innumerable manifestations of divinity. God, thus conceived, is not One to take us to heaven, but One who comes down to earth to affirm and establish the eternally civilizing principles of Truth, Righteousness and Jus­tice. Divinity manifests itself in tangible forms from time to time whenever these principles lose hold on human societies.

Hence historical gods become not only possible, but necessary and periodic. And no people or epoch can claim monopoly over them. It is this belief that enables the Hindu to accept the Buddha and Christ, Moses and Mohammed, as manifestations of the divine.    

Then again, the world at large is sustained by immutable laws that operate during the lifespan of the Universe. Vishnu thus becomes the personification of the order and harmony that keeps the world functioning.

The third member of the  Trimurti is Siva, the principle of dissolution that brings to naught all that emerges. Not just the short-lived bloom of a lovely rose and the steadfast heart-beat of a healthy human, but everything ultimately comes to an end. From the frail whisper of the gentle breeze  to the sturdiest of rocks, from the mute interactions of leptons and hadrons to the seemingly endless existence of spectacular galaxies, everything is destined ultimately to vanish. What causes this eventual end is the mystery that the Hindu world represents as the mystical Siva. Siva is the dot that completes every sentence of existence,  the invisible rope that closes the curtain at the end of a cosmic show,  the final puff of the physical world.

The Hindu Pantheon

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Hinduism to anyone from a different faith is the morphic multiplcity of gods and goddeses in the Hindu world. I would therefore like to briefly explain this aspect of Hinduism.

Elusive Godhead is  given form and substance here. Moreover, if polycephaleous and multi‑armed gods are pictured, if monkeys and serpents are revered as also rivers and mountains, this is as much to concretise an abstraction that few of of us can visualize as to remind us of the omnipresence of the Divine Principle. Such images  also embody much color and charm, and have given rise to great art and poetry. 

  Beyond this, there is much esoteric meaning in the forms and faces, subtle symbolism and inner meanings in the genesis and doings of the gods. In the Puranic tales and epic allusions to the Gods we are reminded again and again that divinity is by definition that which transcends the constraints of space and time, of causality and conservation, even of ethical categories. Gods can be good and bad, beautiful and ugly, merciful and cruel, majestically grand and dwarfishly small, handsome as a hero or plain as a tortoise. Brahma may grant boons, yet scheme to de­prive a miscreant of what he has won. Vishnu may be majestic and manly, but he also assumes the frail form of a female. Siva may be austere as as ascetic, yet lust for Parvati. Indeed  gods of the Hindu pantheon may be supremely continent and also overtly ithyphallic. They love and hate one another, cooperate and are in conflict, collaborate and compete. For, in the vision of Hinduism mutual contradictions are for the finite world, logical incon­gruities for the limited mind. Mutual incompatibilities arise from  narrow perpectives. But in the cosmic grandeur they all dissolve. The same vast sky can be pitch‑black at night and gloriously bright at noon . We can float on the ocean, and also sink to its dark depths.   

  Such were the inspirations behind the panoramic pantheon of the Hindu world. In our own times, when physicists wonder how the same electron can be both particle and wave, the ancient Hindu insight comes in handy to resolve the paradox: The world results, not from contradictions, but from complementarities. There are no absolutes: our descriptions depend on our reference system. Two valued logic is useful and appropriate only in certain contexts.

 

The Atman

The fundamental problem of all theology is the explanation of human consciousness. Hinduism tackles this problem by an elabo­rate theory of the soul. The soul is the spark that infuses matter with life and consciousness. It is referred to as the atman, which in Sanskrit simply means 'the self.'

Each living creature, and the human being above all, is endowed with an atman that feels and thinks and preserves its identity. But each atman is but a splinter from the spiritual splendor which undergirds the universe, and which is known as the Brahman. In the course of its terrestrial sojourn the atman often fails to recog­nize this cosmic connection, even as a child that is removed from its parents may not recognize its family connections at a later stage of its life. Thus the atman is unaware that its separate­ness from Brahman is merely temporary and illusory.

A major goal of human existence, in the Hindu framework, is to realize the identity between the individual atman or the jivatman and the supereme atman or the paramatman. Such a realization is equivalent to achieving cosmic consciousness. It is reserved to but a few in a given generation to attain that state of self‑realization. Those that truly reach that ultimate awareness are known as âmagyânis, the knowers of the atman (the Enlightened Ones).But we all get a glimpse of it when we meditate, pray, or get immersed in devotional music.

Sooner or later all atmans will merge with the paramatman whence they all emerged, even as children that go out to play, to return home eventually. The atman too, after its numerous experiences,  goes back to its original source.

The proposition that all human souls are sparks of the same divine fire may be regarded as a metaphorical and metaphysical way of expressing its Christian equivalent that we are all child­ren of God. But the Hindu concept goes beyond the anthropomorphic view. It states that on final analysis in all life, human or otherwise‑ there throbs the same universal principle.

In ancient Greece , Thales of Miletus suggested that everything in the world is ultimately made up of water. Modern science reduces the variety of matter to combinations of atoms, the atoms themselves are recognized as consisting of still more fundamental entities. Just as the chemistry teacher explains to his pupil that by breaking up of a piece of matter indefinitely, one will ultimately be lead to its atomic constitution, so too the teacher in the Chândogya Upanishad (c 600 B.C.) tells his disciple:

"...the first essence which you do not perceive, verily   from this first essence, this great tree arises. Believe   me, dear one, that which is the finest essence, this whole   world has that as its soul. That is the atman. Tat tvam   asi: Thou art that."

 

Samsâra: reincarnation

The atman is eternal. The question then is, What happens to it after the physical body dies. In the Hindu view, it migrates from body to body. The phenomenon of physical death is thus the disembodiment of the atman which later encases itself within another body. This leads to the idea of a cycle of births and deaths. This cycle is known as reincarnation or  samsâra. In this vision, the âtman is like a frequently occurring word in a book which appears again and again in different pages and in different contexts.

For those not of the Hindu faith, I would like to draw attention to two positive effects of belief in the re-incarnation idea. First, the notion that the âtman is immortal is a tremendous source of strength in the face of death. At that saddest of all moments in a family’s history, there is the assurance that all is not lost. Secondly, there is also the hope, often the conviction,  that the disembodied âtman will reappear in the family as a member of a generation yet to be born.

The idea of metampsychosis or transmigration of the soul was accepted by many ancient cultures, such as the Egyptian, the Greek, and even medieval European. Plato referred to the Orphic tradition, according to which “soul and body are united by a compact which is dissolved at death; but only to re-imprison the liberated soul after a short time; for the wheel of birth and death revolves inexorably. Thus the soul continues its journey, alternating between a separate unrestrained existence and fresh reincarnations.”

 

Law of karma

In this context one may ask, “On what basis does a given âtman choose to enter a particular body for its next corporal manifestation? Is this governed by pure chance, or ordained by God, or perhaps in accordance with some rules?”

The answer to this question is given by another basic Hindu doctrine: the law of karma which states that each of our actions is fraught with many consequences. None of us will be denied the sweet fruits, nor can escape the bitter berries that result from what we do. These will be reaped by us sooner or later: if not in the course of our current life, the n in a later one to follow.

The law of karma has an echo in Christian thought. Many may recall the line is St. Paul ’s Epistle where it says, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap.”

The ultimate goal of spiritual evolution is to break away from the repetitious  birth-death cycle.This is to be achieved through right action and spiritual effort. Such a liberation is known as moksha or nirvâna.

One may also look upon the law of karma as a metaphysical explanation for the obvious uneven distribution of success and suffering in the world. It is difficult to accept that a loving and just God would permit the exploitation of the helpless and the escape from punishment of the wicked such as we witness all around us. According to the law of karma, such inequities are only apparent. The observed maldistribution of wealth and health, of capacities and comforts, has arisen from actions of varying merit and demerit performed by individuals in past life-terms. What we are seeing are different harvests reaped from different seeds, sown by the various individuals in past incarnations.

This explanation is as sound as any to reconcile divine justice with social and heriditary non-uniformity. It enables us to accept out lot without too much grumbling, by attributing misfortunes to misbehavior in previous births. Yet, it is important not to imagine that th law implies a stoic acceptance of what is happening to us, for it leaves open the future. Recognizing the law can also inspire us to enagage in good and meritorious actions so as to ensure happier states in the future.

Thus, the law of karma may be looked upon as a wise blending of determinism and free-will. It regards as unalterable what has already occurred, yet as transformable what is yet to transpire. When something good happens to us, we may give credit to ourselves as having contributed to it. When something bad occurs, we cannot search others of Gd to blame. We have the potential to mould our future. That future is not confined to the present life.

 

Dharma

The ethical and juridical component of Hinduism rests  on the concept of dharma: a word that has no precise English equivalent, but is variously translated as duty or religion. The illustrious law-giver Manu of classical India summarized the meaning of dharma as that which “holds in unity all the creatures of the world.” For the individual, dharma may be looked upon the ethical framework which keeps one at peace with oneself and with the world in which one lives. There is an ecological insight in this view of dharma.

Manu  listed ten components of dharma in this context: of which three are for the development of one’s spiritual potentials. These are temperance, purity of body and mind, and control over one’s senses. Three are related to one’s intellectual life, for they include adherence to  reason, pursuit of knowledge, steadfast adherence to truth. Then there are three which relate to our impact on others. These are forgiveness, angerlessness, and not coveting what belongs to others. The final item in Manu’s list is perseverence.  

There is another aspect of the Hindu dharma concept which it is worth noting. And that is that dharma has two components: One is a variable component. That is to say, certain  aspects of how we behave and what values we hold can change with space and time. What might have been conducive for a stable society at one time, could be totally inappropriate at another time. What might be politeness in one society, such as hugging as a form of greeting,  could be totally inappropriate in another society. We need to modify our dharma with time an place to maintain harmony. Having two cars for every family may have been fine at one time, and in some places, but it is not to be recommended where there is great pollution of the air. This constitutes yugadharma, i.e. the dharma of the age, or (as I term it) adyâtanadharma or today’s dharma. The other invariable  component of dharma is sanâtanadharma or eternal dharma.which refers to values like caring and compassion, performance of one’s duties, respect for others, and the like.

 

Conversion

  Hinduism does not recommend change of faiths. It does not encourage conversion from one religion to another. Although it regards God and Truth as one, it leaves open the possibility that all people, even the learned, may call it by different names. What is important is the aspiration for the ultimate Truth, the effort to attain it, not the specific paths and practices by which one may try to reach the goal.

  This attitude constitutes more than theological tolerance. It implies not only an intrinsic respect for different points of view with regard to religious truths, but also the conviction that no single approach can be considered best, let alone the only way to save our souls. It recognizes the validity of every religious perspective that is based on sincerity and that flows from he heart. In this respect, Hinduism differs radically from some other major religions whose goal is to convert others to their own views and versions of godhead and afterlife. Though such efforts arise from a genuine concern for the spiritual well-being of others, and from a wish to share a religious awakening that one has experienced, Hinduism  explicitly discourages conversion to or from the religion of one's birth. A passage in the Bhagavad Gita declares that it is far better to follow, however inadequately, one's own religious responsibilities than to adopt some one else's.

 

 Some sacred books of Hinduism and rishis

Hinduism was not initiated by a single individual. It grew out of the  combined thoughts and spiritual experiences of countless sages. These were the orginal sages or rishis who laid the foundations of the Hindu world view and response to existence and the beyond. From them arose the beliefs and insights, the words and wisdom that continue to reverberate in the Hindu heart to this day. The rishis initiated the basis of the Hindu religious framework. Their hymns and evocations constitute the first  scriptures of Hinduism. Their legacy and those of other rishis of later ages  include material of a variety of genres:  magnificent poetry, sacred mantras, philosophical discourses, didactic legends, ethical aphorisms, legal injunctions and glorious epics. 

The Vedas are among the most ancient literature in human history. They form the spiritual basis of Hinduism. They are known to have originated more than three thousand years ago, and are probably the creations of thinkers who  lived over a time span of several centuries.

The rishis were  spiritually advanced souls who are believed to have grasped the nature and essence of the Ultimate. Indeed, from the most remote times in Indian history, seers and sages have been speaking to the people on life and existence, on death and after-life, on soul and God. Some of these men of mystic wisdom acquired their insights from years and reflection and meditation, through painful penance and austere asceticism.

The rishis were not just scholars and philosophers, nor pious preachers who  advised the common folk to be good and kind. Rather, they were practitioners of esoteric techniques by which gained glimpses of some higher reality behind all the appearances of the phenomenal world. They had broken the veil of ignorance that for ever keeps ordinary mortals in misery and mystery. They spoke with exuberance and certainty on knowledge supreme.

The rishis were often simple and serene men, in harmony with themselves and with the world around, indeed in a state of pristine joy. They were inspired seers who adorned their wisdom with poetry and music. They composed hymns to the powers of the cosmos, framed rules and laws for civilized society, discoursed on metaphysics, and initiated the young into esoteric wisdom.

They were extraordinary men in many ways, men who explored the spiritual potential of humans to its very extreme. It was such men as these that individually and collectively laid the foundations of, and contributed enormously to, what was to become one of the most colorful and complex religious traditions of humankind.

Though the Vedas as hymns were composed and uttered by rishis, from the traditional perspective, the Vedas have always been there in the universe, as cosmic vibrations in the  vastness space. They are described as that which is not of human origin. Indeed, the belief is that during the periodic dissolution of the material world, the Vedas continue to persist, for they are eternal and imperishable. Every time that the universe is re-born, the Gods recall the Vedic hymns.

It is said that once there were far more Vedic mantras than we now have, for  during each cosmic re-emergence, some of them were lost or transformed. They were revealed to some of the Himalayan seers of ancient India who are known as Vedic rishis. The rishis literally heard the Vedas; for which reason, the Vedas are also known as shruti: that which has been heard. The rishis  could hear them because of their the spiritual heights to which they had reached. The rishis served as vehicles through for the transmission of Vedic truths  to humanity.          

The hymns of the  Vedas are mantras: sacred syllables with magical powers, to be uttered in accordance with prescribed rules of euphony. In the religious context, mantras  are to be learned from a guru in a spirit of humility, not just read from a book for analysis and criticism. They have esoteric significance which are beyond the grasp of those without sensitivity for spiritual visions.

The Vedas have for ever been an intrinsic feature of the Hindu world. They embody the eternal principles (sanâtana dharma) undergirding Hindu culture and religion. Their off-shoots form the cream and crux of Hindu philosophy, art, literature, and music.

Composed in archaic Sanskrit,  Vedic mantras have been recited and chanted since time immemorial: in feasts and festivals, in yajńas and pűjas, in ceremonies and obsequies.

 An orthodox Hindu is sometimes defined as one who accepts the authenticity, the sacredness, and the divine origin of the Vedas. Thus, the Vedas constitute a spiritual and cultural continuity that has few parallels in the history of humankind. Though in the modern age many earnest Hindus may be interested in the historical, philosophical, and  prosodial aspects of the Vedas, it is impossible for one raised in Hindu culture not to feel a sense of reverence towards them.

The worship of rain and thunder, of fire, light and of noctur­nal silence, reveals a perception of the essential and the ulti­mate for life processes here below. As we well know, water, heat and light are at the very basis of all life.

  The Rig Veda embodies a great deal more than prayerful incanta­tions. There are references here to medicine, to the role of the bride, and even to ship‑building. It also contains strange myths and bold cosmological theories. On many themes discussed here one detects a healthy skepticism. Thus in a famous song of crea­tion, desire is reckoned as the root cause of the physical uni­verse, an obvious extrapolation from what gives rise to the conception of humans. But after speaking of God the author wisely  adds (Book X, 129.6):

"Who verily knows and who can declare it,

      Whence it was born, and whence came this creation,

The Gods are later than this world's production,

Who knows, then, whence it first came into being?"

The Vedic writings reveal the alertness, vigor and imagination of the early Hindus. These are  among the most magnificent expressions of yearnings of the human heart for the divine, human reactions to the awe and mystery of  existence. They reflect a spirit that is forever inquiring, a boldness of thought that takes the mind to cosmic categories, and an attitude that exudes confidence in the limitless potentials of human consciousness.

  Faced with ideas and poetry of such staggering power, which were, incredibly, transmitted from generation to genera­tion by unerring repetition, it is not surprising that one is inclined to attri­bute divine sources to the Vedas.

The Upanishads are the quintessence of Hindu spiritual wisdom. There are over a hundred and fifty pieces of writing that are referred to as the Upanishads. Perhaps even more of them were once current and widely known. They cover a broad spectrum of topics. Their formats range from simple prose and didactic dia­logues to subtle poetry and sublime philosophy. Scholars are of the opinion that many of the Upanishadic writings were composed during the period between 800 to 200 B.C.

The Upanishads express lofty thoughts and  profound reflections pertaining to human existence and its relation to cosmic mystery. They speak of God and of the Spirit, of the world and of Being, not in  poetic and pictorial ways, not as problems and confu­sions, but as resplendent reflection of Infinity. They inform us in no uncertain terms of our unseverable links to the eternal, and they instruct us not to ignore our cosmic connection.

Not to remember this  truth would be as pathetic as the fate of the vagabond who roams the road in poverty and disease when, as a matter of fact, he is the son of a millionaire. For we are all heir to more than the matter that constitutes the physical body and the energy that sustains it. We are no doubt subject to the limitations of space and time, and restricted by the constraints of causality. Yet, say the seers who authored the Upanishads, there is something in us that can transcend all of this.

  That something is the often unrecognized link we all have with the Supreme Spirit which is the substratum of the universe. That something is in the indelible imprint we all bear of the eternal and omniscient Brahman. Indeed we are  but faint echoes, each one of us, of that splendor that o›ginated and sustains the cosmos.

  Such is the message of the Upanishads. It is not picturesque mythology, nor a promise of heaven or threat of hell. Rather, it is a magnificent vision that raises human consciousness to a heightened level.

 

Hindu religious views

      What can one say in brief of the religious views of Hindus? The basic Hindu religious view is that there is sanctity in all life and in all nature, a spiritual undercurrent in everything in the universe. The oft-quoted belief in three hundred and thirty million gods of Hinduism is a poetic expression of this fundamental world view.

      This spiritual substratum is  known as Brahman. Living entities are  its faint echoes. The multiplicity in the physical world is a transitory  spatio-temporal manifestation of Brahman. Human life is a conscious flicker that has the potential for recognizing and realizing  the cosmic connection between the ephemeral, variegated manifestations and the  timeless, undifferentiated  Brahman. Spiritual illumination involves the ineffable experience of the bond between the temporal and the eternal. This is the equivalent of mystic vision which, in immense intensity or in faint measure, may be achieved via meditation, yoga, and other spiritual exercises.

      There is  intrinsic respect in the Hindu world for anyone and any system that accepts the spiritual component of life and the world. This leads to the acceptance of every shade of belief and persuasion about divinity. It arises from the conviction that the divine is not someone or something to be accepted because it is so stated in holy books, but  is  rather a dimension of the universe that is to be apprehended  by direct effort and  personal experience. One of the profound insights of  Hinduism  is that  there is but one ultimate Truth, but that even the most knowledgeable  describe it in quite different ways, as in the parable of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant.

      Associated with this is a doctrinal tolerance in the principles of Hinduism that has few parallels in religious thought elsewhere in the world. Hinduism is perhaps the only traditional religion that has an explicitly stated  credo of religious  tolerance, as reflected in the prayer: aakaasaad atitantoyam…

      That is why people of the Hindu faith have little difficulty in allowing others to have their own religious beliefs and symbols. Enlightened Hindus may go into a mosque,  church, or  synagogue, and pray there in silence to their own  vision of the divine principle.

 

Commonalties among Hindus

      Finally, I would like to list what are common to all members of the  Hindu faith, irrespective of their sectarian affiliation or personal perspectives,  share some basic religious values,  practices, and beliefs. These include:

      (a) Worship of god in tangible forms and images to concretize the abstract divine principle. Indeed, the conviction is that except for a few spiritually enlightened souls, symbols, be they icons or books or geometrical patterns, are indispensable for religious experience.

      (b) Sensitivity to the great epics of the tradition: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which provide, through narratives and episodes, the ethical framework of right and wrong and duty and responsibility.

      (c) Reverence for the personified divinities of the sacred literatures,  to evoke and give expression to devotion and  love of god. Hindu centers of worship (temples) are described as the Home of the Gods, for here are housed the many colorful icons of the Hindu world, each associated with episodes and histories, and endowed with particular powers.

      (d) Celebration of certain universal festivals, especially of the deepâvali or Festival of Light which marks the epic victory of Good over Evil, as told in the stories of the tradition.

      (e) Performance of rituals in the presence of the sacred fire, for Fire symbolizes the primordial and the eternal, that which was in the first moment of Creation, which subsists in the cosmic void as stars, and which will arise as the all-consuming conflagration at the end of each cosmic cycle

      (f) Recitation of  Sanskrit hymns in prayers and in sacraments, to reflect the esoteric dimension of the religion and to affirm the tradition's cultural  continuity. Sanskrit in the Hindu world is the sacred language of the Gods.

      (g) Sectarian endogamy to maintain subcultural cohesiveness: a practice that is gradually changing because of factors in the complex modern world of mobility.

      (i) Respect for the doctrines of re-incarnation (the re-emergence of the eternal soul in another body, after death) and karma  (reaping the consequences of one’s action in this birth and/or the next). These are among the basic doctrines of Hinduism, and are meant to explain the non-uniform distribution of health and happiness, fortune and intelligence, among individuals in the world.

      (j) Invocation of the Cosmic Principle  for universal peace through the sacred syllables, om shânti, shânti, shântihi!

 

Concluding remarks

These then are some  of the more salient aspects of Hinduism. Hinduism has its glorious side, but it has also had zealous practitioners who have now and again soiled its history by acts unbecoming. This, as well all know, is true of practically every religion of the human family, for we are imperfect, one and all.

Hinduism has inspired  magificent music and grand poetry, complex art and architecture, colorful dances and profound philosophy: all of these have enriched the people of the faith. But its great contribution to the world at large is in the form of a simple prayer which I remember learning as a lad: It says:

âkâsâd patitantoyam yedâ gacchadi sâgaram

sarva deva namaskârah sri kesavam pradigacchadi.

As the waters falling from the skies

Go back to the self-same sea,

Prostrations to different gods

Reach the same Divinity

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