* SOME QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS ABOUT HINDUISM *
Q. What is the main “Bible” or Scripture for Hindus?
A. There isn’t actually a main “Bible” or sole central scripture of Hinduism. There are many hundreds of different kinds of scriptures and spiritual texts belonging to the many different and diverse forms of the religion. Some which are well known include the Ramayana, the Vishnu Purana, Shrimad Bhagavatam (Bhagavata Purana), and Yoga Vasistha.
There are six divisions of Hindu scriptures and these – in order of general authority and importance – are (1) the Shrutis, (2) the Smritis, (3) the Itihasas, (4) the Puranas, (5) the Agamas, and (6) the Darshanas.
However, there are three specific central scriptures which comprise the Prasthanatraya (“Triple Canon”) and these are the main and truly authoritative scriptures for a Hindu. They are the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras (Brahman Sutras), and the Bhagavad Gita.
Of these three, the Brahmasutras are the least read, due to their being very abstruse and intellectually philosophical, and almost impossible to understand without the aid of a special commentary known as a Bhashya. Their aim and purpose is to expound and clarify the nature of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, as presented in the Upanishads.
Regarding the Upanishads, Swami Sivananda has written, “The Upanishads are the concluding portions of the Vedas or the end of the Vedas. The teaching based on them is called Vedanta. The Upanishads are the gist and the goal of the Vedas. They form the very foundation of Hinduism. … Even the Western scholars have paid their tribute to the seers of the Upanishads. At a time when the Westerners were clad in barks and were sunk in deep ignorance, the Upanishadic seers were enjoying the eternal bliss of the Absolute, and had the highest culture and civilisation.”
The Upanishads, the oldest of which were written at least 3,500 years ago, are timeless, beautiful, and inspiring treatises which all focus on the identity, unity, and literal sameness of the spiritual nature of the individual and the Divine Absolute Reality or, in other words, the Oneness of our Higher Self (Atman) with the Supreme Self (Brahman). The Upanishads describe Brahman as the ONE Infinite Divine Life and speak of the oneness, non-separateness, and inner divinity of all things. They are the source and the deepest and most profound expression in history of the spiritual teaching of non-duality and universal oneness.
The Bhagavad Gita, which literally means “Song of God” or “The Lord’s Song,” is without doubt the most popular and universally loved of all Hindu scriptures. It consists of a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna and is admired by multitudes around the world for its practical yet profound spiritual philosophy of life. It has been described as “the Manual of Life” and “the Gospel for the 21st Century.” Krishna is thought to represent the Higher Self and Arjuna the individual human soul, who must turn towards and seek refuge in that Self. Set on the scene of a battlefield, it in no way promotes or encourages war and violence as some enemies of Hinduism have ignorantly claimed, but rather symbolises the battlefield of life or “the war within,” which each of us must at some time face. Although not a particularly long book, it is truly an unforgettable classic of the world’s spiritual and religious literature.
Being part of the Vedas (the original foundational scriptures of Indian civilisation and the most ancient books known to man), the Upanishads are thus of the nature of Shruti, meaning direct revelation, and are thus ultimately the primary and final scriptural authority of the religion of Hinduism.
Q. What is the Hindu view of God?
A. The Upanishads very clearly and repeatedly explain that God – the Divine Absolute Reality – is not a Supreme Being but rather a Supreme Principle. It is referred to as Brahman, which can be translated as “infinite expansion.” It is acknowledged as being ultimately undefinable and indescribable but the Upanishads try their best by using such terms and phrases as “the divine Principle of existence,” “attributeless reality,” “the ground of existence,” “changeless, nameless, formless,” “Pure Consciousness,” “formless in the midst of forms, changeless in the midst of change, omnipresent and Supreme,” “the eternal Reality,” “without form and unconditioned,” “infinite and invisible,” “beyond all attributes,” “without body and without mind,” “without action or organs of action,” “beyond good and evil,” “beyond the reach of words and works,” “the indivisible unity of life,” and “That from which all words turn back and which thought can never reach.”
Those are just a few examples out of hundreds of similar terms.
Since Brahman is the ONE Life and the ONE Reality, it is said in Hinduism that there is nothing but Brahman and that thus Brahman is all there is, being all and in all. This is the main reason for Hindus revering all living beings and life itself as something sacred, precious, and divine. They know that Brahman is “the Only One,” “One without a second,” as the scriptures say.
And so, in the highermost part of our being, in our essential nature as pure eternal spirit, we too are Brahman, this “Eternal Light” and “Infinite Life.” This is why the Vedanta philosophy speaks constantly of man’s identity and oneness with the Divine. Many Hindus will meditate upon and affirm the statement “Aham Brahmasmi” – “I am Brahman.”
Since Brahman is recognised as being absolute, infinite, immutable, and unconditioned, It can thus have nothing finite, conditioned, or anthropomorphic about Itself, such as form, personality, physical appearance, name and human-like characteristics, etc. Rather than being a “He,” it is taught that Brahman is to be reverentially referred to as “IT” since to do otherwise would surely be an attempt to drag the purely Spiritual and purely Divine down to the physical, material, human level, whereas we should be endeavouring instead to raise and elevate ourselves in consciousness up towards the purely Spiritual and Divine, for That is who and what we truly and eternally are.
However, as well as being an expressly monist or monistic religion, Hinduism is also pluralistic in that it not merely permits but actively encourages everyone to relate to God or the Divine in the way that suits them best and which appeals to them the most. The above may be somewhat unpalatable for some and so we also find many Hindus viewing and worshipping God as a Supreme Being with personal characteristics. Many acknowledge and accept that behind their anthropomorphic concept of God there is the Infinite Brahman Principle but they feel that it is more beneficial and helpful for them personally to give a more human and comprehensible touch to It, characterising It as Vishnu, Krishna (who is considered to have been the supreme Avatar of Vishnu), Shiva, Ganesha, Rama, one of the representations of the Divine Mother, or indeed anyone or anything else of their choosing.
This is accepted and celebrated in the vastly diverse and open religion of Hinduism, where many differing viewpoints and perspectives live harmoniously side by side, yet it cannot be denied that the Upanishads teach of a Supreme Pure Divine Consciousness which is everything and in everything, rather than a Supreme Being modelled in the image and likeness of us human beings.
The Hindu Trinity or Trimurti is comprised of Brahma (note the important distinction between Brahma and Brahman; they are not the same!), Vishnu, and Shiva. Their roles are popularly described as Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. It is said that at the appointed time Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva comes forth from Brahman and causes the universe to come into being. Brahma performs the initial task of evolution into manifestation, Vishnu then preserves and sustains the whole universe until finally the universal life cycle reaches its appointed end, whereupon Shiva destroys it all.
Philosophically speaking, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are not three distinct “beings” or entities but are the three different aspects of the One all-ensouling Life of the Universe or, in other words, Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva is the Living Universe itself…self-evolving (when it radiates forth from the absoluteness of Brahman), self-sustaining, and finally self-dissolving, whereupon everything is completely reabsorbed back into Brahman until eventually the universe has to be reborn, just as everything in Nature is constantly being reborn and following a cyclic pattern.
Q. Do Hindus believe in Creation and teach Creationism?
A. Although the terms “Creation” and “Creator” are used in various places in Hinduism, this is an unfortunate choice of word and in some cases is simply a mistranslation into English, since what Hinduism teaches is not Creationism but rather a very broad and far reaching system of Evolution.
It is widely unknown or at least often overlooked in Western civilisation that Hinduism, along with other Indian religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, believed in and taught evolution thousands of years before Darwin came along. Hinduism does not deny but readily affirms that evolution is a fact and that all manifestation is in a continual state of change, transformation, and progressive development into higher and better adapted forms, affecting the species of animals as well as the vegetable kingdom and everything else, humanity included.
And since Hinduism upholds the idea of non-duality and the Oneness of Brahman, it has to deny creation in the literal sense of the word, since if Brahman is all there is then nothing – no new thing – can ever be created, since that would imply duality and multiplicity and thus negate the non-dualistic ideal as well as unphilosophically implying that infinite impersonal Oneness somehow has the intention and ability to personally make things out of nothing.
It is maintained that Brahman emanates Itself, through Itself, within Itself, and as Itself. It cannot be otherwise, since Brahman is the One and Only Reality; Absolute Infinite EXISTENCE Itself. Thus emanation and evolution are facts, whereas creation as commonly understood and portrayed in the Abrahamic religions is not.
One important difference between the modern scientific view of evolution and the Hindu view is that Hinduism says that the most important aspect of evolution is not the evolution of the outer material form but the constant gradual progression, development, unfoldment, and advancement of the inner life entity through a long series of changing physical forms and experiences, eventually working its way up to the human kingdom and beyond. In other words, inner evolution is much more important than outer evolution because ultimately only the inner survives and endures and everything external, material, and objective must eventually disappear and cease to be.
Q. What does Hinduism say about the end of the world?
A. Hinduism teaches an ever-ongoing process of the cyclic appearance and disappearance of the universe and everything in it. This again is an aspect of the cosmic and universal system of evolution as propounded in the Hindu religion. This alternating process of the existence and non-existence of the universe is known as Manvantara and Pralaya or the Days and Nights of Brahma, since Brahma represents the universe itself.
Following the cyclically occurring dissolution of the universe, there is complete rest, absolute inactivity, nothing manifest or objective whatsoever, and a complete reabsorption in Brahman. This remains for the exact same duration as the universe had previously been in manifested objective existence, the life span of the universe being said to always be a period of 311,040,000,000,000 years.
After that, the whole process of universal evolution begins all over again, with everything now raised to a higher level than it was before.
Thus the universe itself is ultimately only a temporary and impermanent thing (hence it being called “maya” or illusion) and its contents such as the solar systems and planets even more so, since they die and are reborn a multitude of times within the universal life cycle. Our world will therefore eventually come to its end, only to later be reborn or “reincarnated” in some way, but this will not and cannot happen until the appointed cyclic time and according to the calculations and calendars of the ancient Hindus that time is still an incredibly long way off.
Q. Does the West have an accurate view of Hinduism nowadays?
A. Unfortunately not. Despite being the world’s third largest religion and 15% of the world’s population identifying themselves as Hindus, the religion and its teachings and practices are still sorely misunderstood and misrepresented here in the West, with many people not actually knowing anything about it at all. To the average person in the street, the word “Hinduism” signifies a strange, impenetrable, chaotic, colourful world filled with hundreds or thousands of peculiar gods or deities with many limbs, many heads, and unnaturally coloured skin.
It’s true that a few terms and concepts that originate in Hinduism have filtered into popular Western usage, such as karma, reincarnation, yoga, mantras, and so forth, and quite a lot of people are aware that karma and reincarnation play some sort of role in the Hindu philosophy but that’s about all they know at the very most and those terms themselves are often either partially or severely misunderstood, particularly in the case of yoga. But then again, the average Westerner doesn’t know very much at all about Christianity either, despite most of the Western nations still being nominally Christian countries…so perhaps we shouldn’t be overly concerned about this at the moment.
What is a cause of concern is that even the majority of spiritually interested people have a warped view of Hinduism, often falling into one of the two extremes of either erroneously equating tantric things such as Kundalini awakening and the chakras (which play an extremely minor and virtually inconsequential role in the teachings and general practices of Hinduism) with Hinduism at large or alternatively assuming that Hinduism as a whole is a type of Bhakti movement with the central focus on worshipful devotion of a Supreme Being figure and various deities.
The first erroneous view is largely due to the New Age movement which is famous for misrepresenting, misunderstanding, and grossly distorting numerous aspects and teachings of Eastern religions. New Agers spend their time – and money! – attempting to “cleanse,” “unblock” and “heal” their chakras, naively believing the claims of various writers and teachers that this is actually an ancient and prominent practice of the Indian sages, whilst in reality the Indian sages observe such nonsense with pity and cannot help but laugh. The second view is often formed by someone visiting a Hare Krishna temple, for example, and then automatically assuming that all of Hinduism is like that.
Those who are genuinely and sincerely interested in gaining a clear and deep understanding of the heart of Hinduism, which is Vedanta, may perhaps have some idea where to look after reading this article. One excellent and influential new endeavour is the excellent “Upanishad Ganga” television series from Chinmaya Creations, which is part of the organisation founded by the late Swami Chinmayananda, one of the most widely respected and beloved teachers of Advaita Vedanta in modern times. The first seventeen episodes of the 52 episode series are now widely available on DVD, complete with perfect English subtitles, and many more episodes other than those first seventeen can be freely watched, albeit without subtitles, on YouTube.
Despite some of the current misunderstandings and misconceptions, we believe that the teachings of Hinduism – or Sanatana Dharma – will soon begin to play a new and more influential role in the world than ever before. It’s surprising how many people say, once they learn more about Hinduism, that they have always believed and known such things to be true. Such is the nature of the world’s oldest and most universal religion.