Unique Features of Hinduism
Continued from Part IV
In one of the earlier parts of the current series, the author had made an important submission that the Hinduism is not merely based on one codified holy book as the instructions of God, instead it is a synthesis of different scriptures and texts of which Vedas and Upanishads being the key and chief source of knowledge, wisdom and truth comprehensively addressing all aspects of human life. Since Vedic era, Hinduism has imbibed and encouraged the culture of debate, dissent and freedom of choice and expression, consequently it developed into a complex and composite religion rather than taking the shape of a syncretic or codified religion like those of Abrahamic religions in the world today.
As a result, none can claim to have learnt all aspects of the Hinduism simply by reading a particular holy text or by following a religious sect. Just to illustrate the said complexity and compositeness of Hinduism, there are as many as six principle Hindu orthodox schools of Indian philosophy (Astika) derived and inspired from the ancient Vedas - the oldest holy texts of Hinduism, namely Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika and Purva Mimamsa. Besides, there are another five heterodox (Nastika) schools heavily influenced or derived from the Vedic religion, namely Jain, Buddhist, Ajivika, Ajnana and Carvaka. Then among the Astika schools, Vedanta, the most followed philosophy, has sub-schools based on monism and dualism with its emphasis on meditation, spiritualism and self-discipline.
The following are some unique features of Hinduism.
Monotheism to Polytheism
Hinduism is a religion that traced its origin in monotheism during the Vedic period but due to its diversified nature, philosophy and doctrines, it assumed the characteristics of a polytheistic religion with the course of time. Unlike other monotheistic religions, no evidence exists that Hinduism ever had a single founder or source. In fact, many scholars actually hold Hinduism as a cultural way of life - a fusion or synthesis of different Indian cultures and traditions with diverse roots since the Vedic age and evolving through ancient civilizations.
As the oldest surviving religion in the world, Hinduism is at least about 4000 years old. Hinduism is also metaphysically the most debated and complex religion that has origin in monotheistic belief yet spanned through pantheism, monism, and polytheism and even allowed atheism during the vast expanse of time. As Hinduism allowed different school of thoughts to prosper, it has multiple doctrines on a variety of subjects and vast literature in the form of scriptures and holy texts. There has been no single known founder of Hinduism and various philosophies, dharmic and karmic beliefs are based on the practices and teachings from the ancient sages to contemporary saints.
Atman and Paramatman
Brahman is the highest deity of Hinduism which is also narrated as the Supreme Soul (Paramatman) or Supreme Self who is omnipresent, omnipotent, absolute, eternal, indestructible and omniscient. He is both creator and created, known and unknown, with form and formless, creator and the created, and hidden in all. Brahman could only be realized through self-realization only and those who attain Him are said to have attained Moksha (salvation or liberation).
According to the popular Vedanta (Dvaita) philosophy, Atman (soul) and Brahman (the Supreme soul) are two distinct realities that exist simultaneously and independently. The Atman is eternal, infinite, indestructible and without imperfections. For Atman, the physical body is just clothing which is discarded at the death. All the living beings including humans, animals, birds, insects and other creatures possess Atman which travels through a repeated cycle of births and deaths till it attain Brahman; the ultimate goal of Atman known as Moksha. As the Atman is different from the body and mind, it can be perceived only in a transcendental state when the mind and senses are inert and silent.
Trinity, Gods and Goddesses
In Hinduism, Brahman (the Supreme Soul) is considered God of the gods and it has three important aspects: Brahma, the creator that is responsible for all creation; Vishnu, the preserver or adherent that is responsible for preservation; and Shiva, the destroyer that is responsible for destruction in the universe.
According to the scriptures these Gods are different facets of Brahman only who carries out the three chief functions of the universal existence namely, the creation, preservation and destruction. In the beginning, Brahma creates the material world and beings and spread the knowledge of the truth of universe including the obligatory duties. Vishnu acts as the preserver, protector and adherent by ensuring the order and regularity of the world thus created. And finally, Shiva destroys and withdraws everything into himself. Although metaphysically the three deities appear to be different but in reality each of them is Brahman only in their highest respective aspect and worshipped as such by the subjects.
In addition to Trinity, Hindus worship hundreds of the other gods and goddesses. Each of the gods has its own aspect, manifestation, emanation, incarnation and projections. Besides, there are many associated and attendant deities, and all this collectively make the Hindu philosophy so diverse and interesting. These deities are believed to reside in the upper straighta of the universe and perform diverse functions for the welfare of the world. For instance, the Sun God would spread light and warmth, the Agni and Varuna Gods would be responsible for the fire and water, respectively. All the gods are believed to have supreme and miraculous powers in their respective area of function. While there are numerous Gods with different assigned functions, there are almost same number of Goddesses too which are equally revered by devotees of the Hindu pantheon.
It is because of the above features of belief and following of multiple Gods that the Hinduism is treated as a polytheistic religion. Notwithstanding above, the Vedas and ancient sages held that every entity in the universe is some aspect of Brahman Himself. That is why the argument is held as valid when someone says that the Hinduism is a journey from monotheistic belief to polytheism.
Diverse Scriptures and Holy Texts
There is no single source of knowledge or a holy book in coded form in Hinduism. The sources of the rich knowledge of Hinduism are both in oral and coded form as scriptures divided into revelatory (sruti) and intellectually recorded works (smriti). The chief scriptures are the Vedas and Upanishads. It is widely accepted that the original source of knowledge were four Vedas and eighteen Upanishads which were further supplemented and augmented by the Dharmashashtras (law books) and Dharamasmritis, the Agamas and Tantras , the two epics (Ramayana and Mahabharata), the Puranas, the six Vedangas, and several sutras such as Grihyasutras, Yogasutras, Bhaktisutras, Brahmasutras, etc.
Bhagavad Gita alone is often considered as the essence of the knowledge of all the dharmic and karmic actions which a human being should rightfully be performing in this world during lifetime to escape the repetitive cycle of birth and death and achieve Moksha. Apart from the above, the ancient Hindu literature is also rich in philosophical treaties and commentaries, ancient plays, dance, music and dramas, vernacular literature, poetic works, and works relating to different professions and fields of knowledge such as astrology, astronomy, anatomy, architecture, iconography, medicine, metallurgy, mathematics, cooking, art, construction of ritual places, temples, and various other subjects.
Ramayana and Mahabharata are often hailed as all-time great epics ever written which simultaneously are documentation of the ancient history of India too depicting their chief protagonists Rama and Krishna as incarnation of God, respectively. Bhagavad Gita is one of the most revered holy texts of Hindus. This is the reason why Hinduism is often treated as the synthesis of scriptures and texts which are, in reality, the treasure of scientific knowledge, wisdom and truth comprehensively addressing all aspects of human life. The text of these scriptures is usually in the Sanskrit verse form constituting comprehensive commentaries and treaties on diverse subjects of society, economics, religion, science and miscellaneous subjects.
Elaborate Customs and Rituals
Hinduism is a composite culture heavily based on complex social and religious rituals since the ancient times. These customs and rituals fall in the category of daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, annual and even repeated in every few years such as Kumbhmela at Allahabad and Hardwar. These rituals are performed at homes, temples and other sacred places in the form of worship (puja), arati, yajna, havan, vrata (fasting), vandana (recital), stuti etc. These rituals could be in the form of simple prayers by individuals or collective prayer by one family to elaborate and large scale functions by mass social gatherings under the guidance and supervision of the qualified priests. Some of the rituals are arranged to invoke certain Gods seeking their instant help for the peace, prosperity, protection, success, good luck and liberation.
Mother Goddess (Durga)
Unlike Abrahamic religions where God is one and supposed to be a male, Hindus worship many goddesses too and have unclenching belief in the Mother Goddess (Durga) who has multiple names and forms like Durga, Shakti, Devi, Kali, Universal Mother and Mother Nature (Prakriti). Conceptually, Brahman is the Supreme Self with everything present in it, while Shakti is the form of energy without which nothing can move. Shakti is the force behind the movement of the breath and activities and functions of the body. Like Brahman, Shakti (Durga) too is considered eternal, infinite and indestructible. In other words, if Brahman is the Supreme Soul, Shakti is its Body (Matter), and for any creation, both are equally important.
Although Hindus worship different goddesses on various occasions in various names and forms, philosophically all the goddesses in Hinduism are considered as manifestations of the Mother Goddess (Shakti) only. For illustration, if Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are three chief manifestations of Brahman, then Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvathi are three corresponding manifestations of Shakti as their consorts. Each of these deities has several names, aspects, manifestations and associate deities. Hindus worship them independently as also along with their consorts.
Karma and Rebirth
Karma literally means action, work or deed but at spiritual level it is also the principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). In Hinduism, Bhagavad Gita lays special emphasis on the Karma theory emphasising good intent and good deed contribute to good karma leading to future happiness and peace, while bad intent and bad deed contribute to bad karma that inflict future pain and suffering. Karma is also closely linked with the concept of rebirth as also the nature and quality of future life.
Since ancient time, the Hindu scriptures lay key emphasis on right karma which is considered the fruit of the person’s actions that comes to him (or her) as an effect. When someone performs an action out of desire assuming ownership and responsibility for it, he is supposed to usurp the corresponding power and role of God, and hence responsible for the consequences too. Both good and bad deeds produce Karma, some of which is incurred and exhausted in the current life and the balance is carried forwarded to the next life. In a way, the accumulated Karma becomes the cause of the repeat cycles of births and deaths, and the unexhausted Karma is linked with the soul as samakara (latent impression) serving as the seed for the person’s destiny in the following life. One could escape the effects of Karma only by renouncing doership and desire for the fruit of own actions.
Moksha as Final Goal
Karma has a role and impact on Moksha (salvation) too. One could achieve Moksha or liberation only by freeing self from the cycle of births and deaths by amending own Karma, through complete renunciation of the doership and desire for the fruits. Moksha is also known by various terms like nirvana, mukti, salvation or liberation, which according to Hinduism philosophy is the highest or ultimate goal of the life.
Moksha or Salvation literally means liberation from the hold of Prakriti (Nature) i.e. getting rid from the compulsion of having a body, the peril of desires and the other material limitations which a body encounters on the earth. By achieving salvation, the Atman or Jiva returns to its original state, and according to Hindu belief it is merged or absorbed in Paramatman (Brahman or Supreme Soul). This off course is very difficult process and perhaps only few in millions are able to realise the truth of life and act accordingly to achieve salvation. Usually, individuals suffer through the torturous cycle of births and deaths according to their Karma because most of them are unable to renounce worldly life, overcome desires, practice virtues, cultivate detachment and develop consciousness and devotion for God.
Happiness and Peace for All
While Abrahamic religions proclaim that God is kind and compassionate to the believers but unkind and unmerciful to non-believers who are sent to the eternal hellfire, Hinduism talks about peace, prosperity, love and respect for all with no strings attached. As per Bhagavad Gita, the good or bad deeds and commensurate reward or punishment is determined by Karma and not by birth or belief.
The basic tenet of the Hindu dharma about the entire mankind could be perceived from the following mantra from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:
"Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah
Sarve Santu Nir-Aamayaah |
Sarve Bhadraanni Pashyantu
Maa Kashcid-Duhkha-Bhaag-Bhavet |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||
[Om! May all become happy, may all be free from illness. May all see what is auspicious, may no one suffer. Om! Peace, Peace, Peace.]
Dharma, Karma and Reincarnation
Dharma and Karma have no corresponding terminologies in the Western and Arabic/Persian languages. In Hinduism, Dharma signifies behaviours that are considered to be in accordance with the principle of natural order which regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe and everything within it. It includes duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues and right way of living. Since Vedic era, scriptures and sages have accorded highest value for an individual to conduct according to dharma, a universal virtue.
As already explained in previous paragraphs, Karma literally means action, work or deed but at spiritual level it also refers to the principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). As per Bhagavad Gita, Karma is also closely linked with the concept of rebirth as also the nature and quality of future life.
As per Hindu mythology, whenever humanity is harassed by the wicked, greedy and arrogant powers with asuri tendencies and humanity is unable to protect self, God Himself reincarnates to deal with such evil doers to protect humanity from their menace. Famous Dashavtars (ten incarnations) of the Lord Vishnu to save earth are widely documented in Puranas and other Hindu texts. Similarly, Rama and Krishna are also believed to be reincarnations of Lord Vishnu to save humans from the excesses of evil doers like Ravana and Kansa, respectively.
In the epic Ramayana (Ramcharit Manas) of Tulsidas, Rama is justified as the reincarnation of the Lord Vishnu at one place in the following verse:
Jab jab hoi dharam ki hani,
Badhahi asur adham abhimani|
Tab tab Prabhu dhari vividh sharira,
Harahi Kripanidhi sajjan pira||
[Whenever Dharma is violated with the rise of arrogant and wicked Asura power, the almighty God Himself comes in various forms as the saviour of the mankind.]
The same message was conveyed through the Bhagavad Gita too in the following verse:
Yada yada hi dharmasya, glanir bhavati bharata|
Abhyutthanam adharmasya,tadatmanam srjamy aham||
Paritranaay Sadhunaam, Vinashay cha dushkritam|
Dharma Sansthapanarthay, sambhawami yuge yuge||
[Whenever virtue subsides and wickedness prevails, I manifest Myself. To establish virtue, to destroy evil, to save the good I come from Yuga (age) to Yuga]
Spirit of Freedom and Tolerance
While in other religion, particularly Abrahamic ones, God is said to favour believers and punish non-believers, the very essence of the Hinduism is that it supports complete freedom of expression and tolerance. While it tends to accommodate different philosophies of the existence of Brahman and His manifestations in the form of various Gods, it even allows the atheism too to be its part. While it accepts the idol worship, it also accepts worship of the formless God. There is no other religion in the world which is so diverse with the vast freedom of practices, choices to make and pantheon to follow. In Hinduism, no God is known to be unhappy and harmful if someone doesn’t worship, and any rewards or punishments are the results of good or bad Karma.
Fasting for Self-Purification
In Hinduism, fasting is a regular practice or ritual recommended since ancient time. More than the religious reasons, it is encouraged for the scientific reasons as part of Ayurveda – the ancient Indian medicine system. As per Ayurveda, the basic cause of many diseases and ailments of the human body is the accumulation of toxic materials in the digestive system which requires regular cleansing to keep the physical body and mind healthy. By regular fasting, one is able to give the needful rest to the digestive organs and in the process all body mechanisms are cleansed and corrected.
According to Ayurveda, as the major portion of the human body is liquid it is influenced by the gravitational force of moon which causes emotional imbalances in the body, making people tense, irritable and violent. In all such cases, the fasting acts as antidote by lowering the acid content in the body thereby cause the sobering and senile effect to the individual. Even certain research too have pinpointed major health benefits to caloric restriction through fasting in terms of reduced cancer risks, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, immune disorders etc.
Hinduism propagates idol and image worship which has been dealt with at length by the author in a separate article. Various Hindu Gods are manifestations of Brahman Himself and Hindus worship the God in various forms and roles. Sometime in the ancient past the system of idol worship was resorted to mainly for the concentration during the prayers towards the deity and the system has been adopted as part and parcel of the religion. The idea behind the idol worship was based on scientific principles with the sound logic and rationale, and such details are enumerated in the Agama Shastra. This is a time tested concept within Hinduism that when people submit themselves before the idol of the intended deity, it becomes much easier for them to focus their thoughts, then they gain a lot of spiritual energy and are able to meditate without mental diversions.
Other Significant Features
Hinduism has provided existence of people in four Varna or classes namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra.
Hinduism recognises four principal objects of human life as Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha.
Hinduism considers three gunas viz. Sattva, Rajas and Tamas, as the most crucial qualities of human nature.
Yoga, Pranayama and Meditation are the gifts of Hinduism which the mankind has now started accepting worldwide for the purification and sound health of the human body and mind.
Hinduism favours the pursuit of wealth particularly for the householders who have responsibility to support the family and society at large.
Hinduism is an adaptive religion and is flexible to change with time by accepting good practices from any source.
Hindus considers 108 as a holy number and the Om and bell ringing at homes and temples as sacred sounds.
Hinduism believed in gender equality in all walks of life. Durga or the Mother Goddess is the symbol of Shakti (power) and there are almost as many Goddesses as Gods for worship.
Mahabharata and Ramayana are two great epics with no parallel in size, volume and content elsewhere.
Hindus accord maximum consideration to the nature and natural objects. Apart from living things, they personify and worship even non-living objects like mountains, oceans, rivers and trees because they provide protection, water, nourishment and shade to human beings.
Thus Hinduism is the oldest survived religion in the world with the above unique characteristics and many more not listed here. Actually it is a complex mix of religious, philosophical and cultural ideas, ethos and practices independently evolved in the Indian sub-continent over a period of time. Currently, it remains the third largest religious population only next to the Christianity and Islam with over one billion adherents which works out to approximately 16% of the world population. Apart from the varied cultural and religious beliefs, Hinduism does not force its followers to accept or comply any single central idea and many practices and rituals are more of the cultural nature rather than creedal.
Being a Hindu, one is not required to mandatorily offer prayers or carry out rituals. Similarly, Hindu scriptures and text neither ask its adherents to blindly follow it nor do they prescribe Hindus to force others to convert to Hinduism either through persuasion or coercion. Hinduism neither poses the threat from the God that the non-believers would be punished with the hellfire nor it asks the faithful to pressurise people from other faiths to either submit to conversion or die. In fact, Hinduism is the only spiritual system where humans are not required to be fearful of the God and He treats humanity as the most superior form of life so much so that He reincarnates at times in human form to act as the saviour in the times of need.
Continued to Part VI