The General Framework of Hinduism
(Prof. Milind Sathye)
The purpose of this paper is to present the general framework of Hinduism to develop our understanding of its nature and core principles and their significance to help resolve the tensions and complexities of the contemporary society. The motivation comes from the misconceptions that surround its theology and practice. Given the vast philosophical literature developed over the years, often the central message of Hinduism for humanity gets lost. Furthermore, the complexities of Hindu societal fabric, the political narrative surrounding, difficulty in accessing the original literature due to lack of familiarity with Sanskrit language and onslaughts by adherents of rival faiths interested in increasing their own market share in the world religious market, often confuses those interested in getting the glimpses of the centuries old philosophical thought. Some wonder whether the ancient philosophical system that dates back to 5,500 years has any relevance to the modern age. We find that the core framework of Hinduism is built to create, support and maintain a harmonious society. The aim of Hindu philosophy is the extinction of sorrow and suffering which arises due to ignorance about our true original nature. The ignorance can be dispelled by acquiring knowledge about the Ultimate Reality by a rational endeavour (both theoretical and practical) underpinned by critical thinking and covering aspects such as metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics among others. An overview of Hinduism could help enlighten the adherents as well as the non-adherents of the Hindu way of life to create harmonious society and to ensure the wellbeing and prosperity of all.
Life’s journey consists of both favourable and unfavourable events. Favourable events make us happy, but the happiness is generally short-lived. Unfavourable events make us unhappy and we want to get rid of ensuing pain and sorrow. We are caught in a private world or interests such as family and friends. We rarely factor in the outside world except when it supports or hinders us. But the powerful outside world can crush our private world to ruins instantaneously. We feel that we are powerless, there is no escape and ultimately surrender to the outside forces. There is no lasting peace and poise in such a life and we feel disempowered or prisoner of our circumstances (Russell, 1912). When life turns sour we ask why is this happening to me? I did nothing wrong then why should I suffer? Why do good people seem to suffer, and bad people seem to be enjoying? What is life all about? Who am I? what I am doing here? Where will I go from here? Is there a God?
When we ask such questions, we are doing philosophical thinking. The need thereof arises both from the desire of a rational person to find answers to the eternal questions posed above as well as to improve man’s ability to cope up with the problems of everyday living and free oneself.
Philosophy centres around three issues: the world or nature, the place of the self in the world and the possibility of a creator God. Both the Western and the Eastern philosophies concern themselves with these fundamental issues. The philosophical issues investigated by both are the same. They, however, differed in the method of inquiry as well as the processes of development of philosophical thought. The philosophical inquiry in the West was in parts or in segregated manner such as metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, logic and aesthetics while Indian philosophers considered these aspects in a synthetic or aggregated manner – not in parts but as a whole (Chatterjee and Datta, 1984).
Philosophy is an all-encompassing framework that includes, among others, the philosophy of science as well as the philosophy of religion. ‘The philosophy of science is concerned with all the assumptions, foundations, methods, implications of science, and with the use and merit of science’ (Stanford, n.d). The central question of the philosophy of science is the demarcation between science and non-science. Science relies on evidence to validate its claims. The predictions made need to be consistent with observation by human senses such as sight, hearing etc. The focus of science is on understanding nature. The tools of science include objective observation, experimentation, replicability and logical reasoning. Science concerns itself with nature or natural phenomena. To solve the demarcation issue – science and non-science- Karl Popper gave the criterion of falsifiability. ‘Theories that are permanently immunized from falsification by the introduction of untestable ad hoc hypotheses can no longer be classified as scientific’ (Shea, n.d.). Theories about God or theology -especially the Abrahamic theologies -are immunised from falsification and hence fall beyond the realm of science.
To understand the philosophy of religion, we need to define religion. It is ‘an organised institution- replete with a founder, a holy order, temples, ceremonies, and so on’ (Cooper, 2003:14). Matters become further complicated if by religion we mean ‘a dogma or a doctrine whose central assertion is that there exists a supreme creator, an object of total devotion with which we should aspire to union’ (Cooper, 2003:14) or surrender completely. Religions concern themselves with transcendent (beyond physical) reality that falls outside the scope of science.
Religious traditions can be divided in two broad categories: theistic and non-theistic (or atheistic). In Western religions (Abrahamic traditions- Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the Ultimate Reality is conceived as a ‘personal God who is creator and sustainer of all and perfect in every respect. Many other properties are commonly attributed to God as well, including omniscience, omnipotence, and immutability’ (Meister, n.d.). In Eastern religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Advait Vedanta school of Hinduism, the Ultimate Reality doesn’t refer to a personal creator God. Accordingly, these religions are non-theistic religions. Some of the Hindu philosophical systems are flatly atheistic… and in others God is only an ‘impersonal cosmic principle’ (Cooper, 2003:14).
Against the above general scheme of things or the canvas and the place of Hinduism within it, I now present the framework of Hinduism in the next section and thereafter in section 3, examine the relevance of Hindu thought for the demands of the modern society.
- The General framework of Hinduism
For a proper understanding of the Hindu thought, it is important to know its general framework – that is, its core concepts and the interrelationships between those concepts. Such a knowledge would help us know how the core principles and philosophy of Hinduism can help us navigate through the needs of the contemporary society. Importantly, it will help us realise that the Hindu thought would considerably help in creating a harmonious world and as such would be of benefit not only to Hindus but to non-Hindus alike. Consequently, the Hindu way of life needs to be propagated for the betterment of the world and to end inter-religious hostilities and violence as well as to make individual life richer, happier and worry-free.
According to the Pew Research Centre (PRC, 2017), Hinduism was the fourth largest religion in the world in 2010 in terms of population (1.03 billion or 15% of world population). Christianity with 2.2 billion (31%) and Islam with 1.6 billion (23%) were the top two religions. The unaffiliated (includes atheist) accounted for 1.13 billion (16%). Buddhism holds the fifth rank with a population of 788 million (7%). Christianity and Islam were established about 2,000 years and 1,500 years ago respectively. Buddhism dates to roughly 500 BCE while Hinduism from prehistoric times roughly 5,500 BCE (Violatti, 2013). It is important to note that Christianity and Islam are proselytizing religions, that is, they actively seek more members to join their religion and aggressively go about religious conversion. Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion and there is no theological injunction to convert others as found in Christianity and Islam (Bandarage, 2015). ‘The more people understand the openness of Sanatana-dharma [Hinduism] the more likely there could be an end to religious war and misunderstandings’ (Knapp, n.d.).
Hinduism’s vast literature consists of the Shrutis (revealed literature), Smritis (recollections), Darshana (viewing or how philosophical system looks at things) and Tantra (technique). The Shrutis consisting of the four Vedas and over one hundred Upanishads (philosophical portion of Vedas) provide the framework for Hindu thought. These were in place since about 4,000 BCE (Dasgupta, 1922). The Smritis consist of law books (eg. Manu Smriti), Puranas (stories and parables, eg. Srimad Bhagwat), the epics Mahabharat and Ramayana, consist of ethical and moral teachings and mythology, six philosophical systems (Shad Darsan) and finally, the vast Tantric (technique of spreading knowledge) literature with 64 prominent texts. The vastness of the literature can be seen, for example, from the Skanda Purana which alone contains 88,100 slokas (aphorisms) and there are 18 such Puranas with varying sizes! The Bhagvad Gita (written around 400 BCE to 200 BCE) synthesizes the vast literature.
Given that the study of such voluminous literature may take a life time of study, Hindu scholars recommend that every Hindu must read at least three texts called the Prasthan Trayi (literally three points of departure) – The Principle Upanishads (Shruti prasthana- the starting point of revelations), Brahma/ Vedanta Sutra (Nyaya or Yukti prasthana – logical text) and the Bhagvad Gita (Sadhana or Smriti prasthan). Sastry (1916:47) notes that these three ‘constitute according to Badarayana, the complete canon of the Vedanta Darsana (or philosophy) or the Institutes of Vedantic teachings –Shruti being the scriptural institute, Brahma sutra being the logical institute and Bhagvadgita the traditional institute.
There are ten principal or classical Upanishad – so called as Adi Sankar chose to comment on these. The Upanishads contain the essence of the Vedas and are the concluding portion thereof. They contain accounts of the mystic significance of the syllable aum, explanations of mystic words, sacred texts and esoteric doctrines (Radhakrishan, 1992). They are not the thoughts of a single philosopher or a school of philosophy but are the teachings of thinkers interested in different aspects of philosophical problems.
Intelligent inquirers, however, needed explanation of the bare quotations contained in the Sruti and Smritis. There was also a need to resolve apparent inconsistencies in the vast Vedic literature. Given the need, Sage Badarayana composed Vedanta or Brahma sutra based strictly on reasoning.
The Bhagvad Gita is essentially a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna – before the start of the epic war between the Kauravas and the Pandavas – and is contained in the Bhishma Parva of the Hindu epic Mahabharat. During the dialogue, Krishna addresses the objections of Arjuna by unfolding a philosophical system which is an amalgam of the Sankhya and the Yoga philosophical strands. The Gita operationalises the abstract ideas contained in the Hindu scriptures and make them accessible for the conduct of everyday life. It can be described as the manual for self-realisation and to achieve societal harmony. The Gita recommends a four-fold path to achieve these objectives: The Way of Knowledge (Jnana Yoga), the way of Action or Duty (Karma Yoga), the Way of Devotion or Bhakti Yoga and the Way of Meditation or Mind Control (Raja Yoga). ‘The Gita gives you the unique way of life that eases off your tension and you enjoy a happy life. Gita, apart from being a religious scripture, is a scripture of life as well’ (Swami Gyananand, 2014:1).
Unlike in Western philosophy which considers ethics (or moral philosophy) to be a separate branch of philosophy, in Hinduism, ethics are embedded in all scriptures and are the foundation on which Hindu practices are organised. Ethics refers to conduct which is studied with respect to personal conduct and social conduct. Unlike Christian ethics which has foreign influences, Hindu ethics is purely indigenous in nature (Satyarthi, 2003). Besides the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Bhagvad Gita, discussion of ethics can be found in the epics and in the Puranas. The Vedas gives us two important ethical concepts: Dharma and the Karma (Law of Karma). ‘Dharma is characteristic property, scientifically; duty, morally and legally; religion with all its proper implications, psycho-physically and spiritually; and righteousness and law generally, but duty above all’ (Das, p.11 cited in Satyarthi, 2003). The Law of Karma refers to the cause and effect relationship or the moral law governing all actions. Similarly, the “Bhakti or loving devotion, which some scholars imagine to be only a late development of Hindu religion, is already evident in the Rig Veda” (Hopkins, p. 8). The Upanishads introduce two more concepts with ethical import these are Sansara (worldly things) and Moksha (freedom from bondage) and demonstrate the interrelatedness to Dharma and Adharma (non- Dharma) and Karma. Moksha is freedom from bondage or Maya which characterises Sansara- an endless cycle of births and deaths. The epics Ramayana and Mahabharata with its heroes Rama and Krishna, resemble Christianity or Islam with emphasis on total surrender to the will of God. The Bhagvad Gita discusses two paths: Nivrutti Marg – the path of renunciation and the Pravrutti Marg or the path of discharging one’s moral and social obligations. ‘Perform duty for duty’s sake without the expectation of reward’ is the key ethical theme emanating. It also cautions to keep away from the shadripus: kam, krodha, lobh, maad, moh and matsara (respectively lust, anger, greed, excessive pride, illusion or infatuation, and jealousy).
Furthermore, for the journey from the lower-self to the higher-self (Ultimate Reality) some accessories have been suggested in the scriptures such as the Ahirbudhnya Samhita and the Patanjali Yoga Sutras (Yoga School). These are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dhyana, dharana and samadhi (Dasgupta, 1922). The yama include: satya (utterance of truth), Ahimsa (non-injury to all beings by word, deed or thought), daya (compassion), dhriti (steadfastness in duty despite dangers), shaucha (purity), brahmacharya (absence of lust), kshama (forgiveness), arjava (uniformity in thought, deeds and words), mitahara (restriction on food intake), and asteya (non-stealing, non-greed). The niyama include: sravana (listening to scriptures), manana (introspection, questioning, reasoning, critical thinking about what is listened to), nididhyasana (repetitive meditation on the Ultimate Truth so learnt), dana (gifting duly earned wealth), santosha (contentment), hri (shame in committing prohibited actions), japa (reciting mantra) and citta-vritti-nirodha (control of tendencies of mind). There are many others too.
A discussion of Hindu ethics would not be complete without reference to the work of the Sage Manu and his monumental work Manu Smriti. It has often been discredited for supporting the caste system. Sadly, it is little known that it is an authoritative work on jurisprudence – the first of its kind ever known to human civilisation. The institution of Manu is older than the Justinian Roman Law or the Law of Salon or Lycurgus. Naturally, the Manu smriti was relevant for the time it was created – circa 1,250 BCE and to suit the societal organisation of that age.
Theology refers to ‘an ordered, coherent exposition of beliefs and commitments, explored and established through the use of a range of philosophical methods of analysis and engaging with the philosophical issues arising out of the ordered set of beliefs’ (Chakravarthi, 2014:98). The Vedas and Upanishads (Shruti text) provide the foundation for philosophical speculation in Hinduism. This is followed by the Sutra (literally thread or aphorisms) literature which systematised the thoughts scattered in the Shruti texts. These include: Jaimini sutra for the Mimamsa, Gautama’s sutra for Nyaya, Kanada’s sutra for Vaisesika, Patanjali’s sutra for Yoga, Kapila’s sutra for Sankhya and Badarayana’s sutra for Vedanta (also called Brahma sutra). Accordingly, each of the six strands (Shad Darsana) of Hindu philosophy had sutra literature. The commentaries on the sutra literature was known as the Bhashya. Accordingly, for Vedanta sutra or Brahma sutra, we have commentaries of Adi Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhva besides Vallabha, Nimbaraka, Baldeva and others.
The Hindu theological literature can be classified in three distinct groups: theology of identity, theology of difference, and the theology of difference in identity. These schools basically deal with the problem of Ultimate Reality which has transcendental and phenomenal dimensions. Hindu theology asks whether these dimensions are different, identical or both? The theologies of difference would encompass: Sankhya, Yoga, Mimasa Nyaya school, the theology of identity would include the six strands of Advaita schools and the theology of difference in identity would refer to, the Vishitadvait school. One of the major contributions of Hindu theology to the world of philosophy is, as already indicated above, the karmasiddhanta (The Law of Karma). Hinduism posits that the general moral law which governs all beings and the outside world is the law of karma. Simply stated the law asserts that all actions -whether good or bad – have consequences. We know that some people are happy while others are miserable. Some virtuous people suffer and the wicked prosper. Why does this happen?
One can easily see the correspondence between our current actions (karma) and consequences thereof in the present life itself. But many a times, it is difficult to see such an association between consequences and actions. We can’t control the consequences as they seem to hit us from nowhere and we find it hard to provide any logical explanation. A scientist would say that there is no reason and it is just a random event, a chance or bad luck. Christianity, and similar other religious paradigms assert that it is the wrath of God. No logical reasoning is offered either by science or by religion.
It is here that the theory of karma comes to our rescue. The theory posits that life is a continuous process and the present life is only a realisation of that process. This thought is very similar to the time series analysis in statistics. Time series models assume a continuous process that began ‘in the infinite past and ends into the infinite future’ (Griffith et al. 2003:643). Hinduism assumes that life is without a beginning and end (anadi and anant). Time series assume that the particular data (say temperatures of earth), we deal with is only a specific realisation of that process. Similarly, Hinduism assumes that the self (atman) passes through several lives and the present is just one specific event or life. In auto regressive timeseries, the assumption is past data (lagged variable) influences present outcome. Similarly, the karma theory asserts that not only your actions in this life but also those performed in the past life influence outcomes in the present life. Such lagged variables taper off to zero in due course and similarly the consequences of the past karma get wiped out over successive lives.
The theory classifies karma in to two broad types: karmas from past lives that have not started generating consequences or outcomes called anarabdha karma and those that have begun to bear fruits, that is, arabhda or prarabdha karma. The anarabdha karma is divided in those accumulated in past life (praktana) and being gathered in this life called kriyaman or sanchayaman karma.
The law of karma is one of the most brilliant contributions of Hinduism to humanity. In one stroke it addresses multiple issues. First, it provides a plausible explanation for the big questions of philosophy, such as, why I am here or why I do I suffer for an apparently inexplicable reason? Second, it puts responsibility on the individual-self instead of blaming others or some imaginary Satan for bad outcomes or unfavourable events. Third, psychologically, it helps one distinguish between what is controllable and what is not (that is, coming from the past karma (deeds). Fourth, by showing the cause and effect relationship it exhorts the individual to do good deeds (by suggesting a host of ethics) in this life which not only builds a harmonious society but assures the individual that her/his good deeds wouldn’t go waste as she/he can reap the benefits in subsequent births (Gita Ch 6.41)
For the Law of Karma to operate obviously the assumption of rebirth is necessary. Hinduism makes that assumption and so does Buddhism and Jainism. Is there really a rebirth? It is difficult to prove this empirically but recent advances in parapsychology appear to confirm such a scenario (Carpenter, 2012, Chopra, 2006). Empirical research is being conducted for over 50 years in this area in some US universities such as the University of Virginia Medical Centre, and Duke University Department of Parapsychology. There are several resources available online in this area for those interested.
To sum up, the key aspects of Vedanta philosophy – the dominant amongst Hindu theology – have been well summarised by Cooper (2003:35). These are derived from the four mahavakyas (great or key sentences) emanating from the Shruti.
- Prajnanam Brahma (consciousnessis Brahman)
- Brahma satya jagat mithya: Brahma (consciousness) alone is real (truth), the world of appearances is illusion or
- Tat tvam asi (That are Thou): You (atman) is the
- Ahum Brahmasmi: I am ‘pure consciousness’. Since reality is one, ‘I’ and ‘Brahma’ must be one.
- Outer appearances are due to ignorance (maya), superimposing on the real (Brahma).
- By focussing attention on our true original nature (pure consciousness, brahman/atman), we can liberate ourselves from the cycle of birth and death. Desires (trishna) create illusion (maya) which in turn creates dukkha (suffering).
In the Hindu literature, the two great epics -Ramayana and Mahabharata – occupy a special place. ‘They are comparable to the Iliad and the Odyssey of the Greek’ (Brown, 1921). Written by the Sage Valmiki, Ramayana narrates the tale of Rama, a prince and Sita his wife who was abducted by a demon King by name Ravana. Rama who is widely considered by Hindus to be the avatar (personification) of Vishnu (God) rescued her. The couple Rama and Sita are the Hindu ideals of a Perfect Man and a Perfect Woman. Ordinary Hindu learns the ethical value system by reading Ramayana in which it is told in a story form which makes it more interesting and accessible to the common man. Rama is also the epitome of good governance and demonstrates the Raj Dharma (what constitutes the right conduct of the King). Parpola (2002) and Basu (2016) put the period of Ramayana circa 500 BCE. But the jury is still out (Kumar, 2016) as can be seen from below.
The Mahabharat war is widely accepted to have taken place after the Ramayana period. Professor of Physics at the Memphis University Narhari Achar using astronomical method planetarium software found that Mahabharata war took place in 3,067 BCE while according to Bhatnagar it would have happened around 1,793 BCE (Kumar, 2016). Consisting of 100,000 verses, the Mahabharata is a story of the war between Kauravas and Pandavas for the throne of Hastinapur. The Bhagvad Gita features in this great poem. The story demonstrates the different shades of human character as well as the ethical dilemma people face. Lord Krishna shows the way out of these dilemmas by emphasizing on Karma Yoga or devotion to duty. With Mahabharata, the conception of four ends of life – dharma (ethics), artha (wealth), kama (sensuous pleasure) and moksha (freedom from bondage) was established as an important part of Hindu view of life (Mohanti, 1999) .
Critics of Hinduism often say that it is a pessimistic and other worldly philosophy. Far from it, Hinduism’s foundation is built on rationality and positivity. It doesn’t lull you into a false hope of a better future after death or presents to you a saviour to save you of all sins. As Swami Vivekanand said, ‘Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth — sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye are not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter’. Hinduism not only accepts ‘free will’ but encourages it. It doesn’t blame fate or any one else for the miseries one suffers but squarely puts the responsibility on you –on your karma – whether past or present, and thereby encourages ethical conduct in the present time.
Many missionaries and colonial rulers misinterpreted, or outright downgraded Hindu thought to serve their objectives (Arnett, 2014). In the process, humanity was deprived of this golden treasure that could help build harmony in the present confused world. The remainder of the article aims to display the gems. Hindu scholars do acknowledge that like any tradition ‘there is much in our past that is degrading and deficient but there is also much that is life-giving and elevating’ (Radhakrishnan, 1992:9). If a person and the humanity must benefit from the over 5,000-year-old traditional wisdom, then we need to focus on what can help us nourish and create a harmonious society around us. In the next section, I attempt this.
- The relevance of Hindu thought for modern society
An important issue is whether the Hindu thought, with all its lofty ideals, is relevant for the present society? What can the modern man learn from Hinduism to make her/his own life richer and the society around her/him peaceful and harmonious? Interestingly, Hindu thinkers also considered how the desirable ideals could be operationalised or brought in to everyday practice. Philosophy can be a dry subject to the disinterested, however, through festivities and other daily practices such as the Yoga, Hindu thinkers made it relevant to address everyday problems that a person faces and the wider society in which s/he lives. Hinduism provided space for everyone: Jnana Yoga, for the atheist/rational thinkers/researchers/scholars who are interested in the rationality that underpins the Hindu Thought. Karma Yoga for workaholics, Bhakti Yoga for ordinary folks who are engrossed in daily chore and Raja Yoga for those who are interested in mind control and trying to be one with the divine using that route.
Focus on rational inquiry and open architecture
The hallmark of Hinduism is its stress on rational inquiry. Hindu scriptures are not commandments but dialogues, discussions and philosophical debates. They typically follow a logical sequence (Bernard 1947, Chatterjee and Datta, 1984) such as the poorva paksha (prior claim), khandan (refutation of prior claim), uttar paksha (new claim), pramana (supporting evidence for new claim) and anuman (conclusion or inference drawn). ‘The systematic and argumentative character of Indian philosophy comes as a surprise to readers’ (Cooper, 2003:14). The Hindu tradition is open to new ideas and scientific thought and Hinduism is akin to humanism (AHA, 2017)’. The Rig Veda begins with an invocation in Sanskrit ‘’Ano bhadrah kratavo yantu viswatah” (let noble thoughts come to us from everywhere in the universe).
Hindu rebels such as the materialist Charavak or Buddha or Mahavira could profess their views without getting killed. Hinduism has no concept of an imaginary male God, giving message to a certain person, at a certain place and at a certain time yet applicable to all persons, at all places and at all time. Hinduism encourages rational inquiry instead of holding people captive to a faith or ideology. Hinduism is not a fossilised religion. ‘In its long history, it has undergone many changes rapidly adopting to modern times’ (Klostermaier, 2010:5). Hinduism presents an open architecture, which helps build a harmonious society.
Galileo and Copernicus, on the other hand, were subjected to imprisonment and possible death sentence for their claim about heliocentrism (Sun is the centre of the universe) which differed from the views of the Church. In 1992 – 339 years later – the Vatican accepted that the Church was wrong (Nicolas and Fleury, 1992). Ancient India is characterised by debates, and discussions, agreements and disagreement in the true spirit of knowledge seeking.
Secular tradition is ingrained, inherent and inseparable from Hinduism – a way of life rather than a religion. A religion has a founder, a holy order or book, ceremonies, dogma about a creator and regimentation of adherents. None of these exists in Hinduism. Some of the Hindu philosophical systems are flatly atheistic… and in others God is only an ‘impersonal cosmic principle’ (Cooper, 2003:14). ‘Because of the importance it gives to the values ingrained in all religions, it – along with Buddhism – is often referred to as the most secular religion in the world’ (AHA, 2017). It is called Manav Dharma (Religion for entire humanity) or Sanatan Dharma (Eternal Religion) notes Bhaskaranand (1994). The Upanishads present a ‘phenomenology of consciousness’ (Deutsch, 1997:30). Hinduism shifts focus from picking difference to identifying similarities and thereby promotes harmony. It proclaims that the universal consciousness resides in all beings (Ishavasyam eedam sarvam). “The Ultimate Truth or Knowledge” means the realisation that outer appearances are deceptive, and all living beings are interconnected.
Because of the secular tradition and rational thinking, besides theology secular sciences flourished under Hinduism. Mohanti (1999) notes the following. Dharma sastra (Laws of Manu/ Nyayasutra’s of Gautama, 200 CE), Kautilya’s Arthasastra (economics, political science and art of war 300 BCE), Sanskrit language and grammar of Panini (600 BCE) – incidentally, Sanskrit is considered to be the most appropriate language for artificial intelligence by NASA (Briggs, 1985), psychology (Patanjali’s yoga sutra 200 BCE), treatise on sex (Kamasutra of Vatsyayana 450 CE), health sciences (references on various diseases are found in Atharvaveda but a full-fledged health sciences system or Ayurveda developed around 500 CE (Narayanswamy, 2001). Similarly, much advances were made in the field of art, painting, sculpture as can be empirically evidenced by the erotic sculpture at Khajuraho in Madhya Pradesh or the temples such as Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu or Verul (Ellora) Kailas sculpture in Maharashtra, Sun Temple, Odisha and others spread across India. History of mathematics in India dates back over 3,000 years. ‘Indian mathematicians made seminal contributions to the study of trigonometry, algebra, arithmetic and negative numbers among other areas’ (Yates 2017:1). There are many references in the Vedic texts that point to early efforts in astronomical studies. For details of the astronomical contributions coming from Shruti and thereafter the Smriti literature please refer to the research paper of Vahia et al. (n.d.) – scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, India.
Freedom of choice
Hinduism appeals to focus on the divinity within as well as outside emphasizing that the Ultimate Reality, is one but can be worshipped according to one’s choice – either ‘with form (saguna)’ or ‘without form (nirguna)’. The freedom of choice promotes harmony. Hinduism is heterogeneous – an accumulation of diverse traditions (AHA, 2017), so everyone has a place in it. Hinduism doesn’t impose its will or world view on others and asserts that as many philosophies so many ways to reach the divine. Consequently, Hinduism respects all religions and ways of worship and doesn’t dictate that everyone must conform to a specific way of thinking and doesn’t imprison human intellect or create any kind of regimentation where rational thinking gets a backseat. Consequently, under the umbrella of Hinduism everyone can live peacefully and follow the traditions that are of interest to them without creating conflict. People of other faiths, atheists, agnostics all have a place in Hinduism and in fact they may find a strand of philosophy or two in Hinduism itself that purports to support their way.
Not ‘divide and rule’ but ‘unite and progress’
Since antiquity, Hinduism asserted Vasudha eva kutumbakam or the whole world is one big family. DNA evidence recently found that all of us have a common mother and she was African. Hinduism is a ‘Federation of Faiths – a Universal Religion’ (Mukhyanand, 2000). Centuries ago, Hindu kings welcomed Christians, Muslims, Parsi, Jews and others to establish their places of worship in India. Minorities have held/continue to hold prominent public offices including President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Military Chiefs in a Hindu majority India. Does any other country in the world matches such inclusiveness? What makes this possible? It will be reasonable to say that Hinduism’s inclusive ethos that underpin India’s constitution make this possible. The principle of unity is enshrined in the Hindu philosophy the central aim of which is realisation of the divinity within and the outcome it produces is eternal peace and harmony. In Chandogya Upanishad, Svetaketu asks his father ‘What is that by knowing which all can be known?’ The father replies ‘By knowing yourself’. ‘You are that’ divinity Svetketu (Max Muller, 2014:183). We are all children of the divine how can we be sinners, asks a Hindu.
Respect for environment
The Hindu ethics of ahimsa (non-violence and respect for life) prevents a Hindu from causing harm to any creature (BBC, n.d.). Ecological consciousness (Nelson, 2000) or environmental ethics (Framarin, 2012) underpin Hinduism which get operationalised in the societal practices such as the worship of the sun (Surya namaskar or Sun salutation yoga postures, for example), the moon, the mother earth, the rivers, the sea, the trees, the mountains and the animals (including a snake!). The Bhagvad Gita, for example, notes that ‘all parts of Nature have an intrinsic value; as such, all the Nature should be treated with dignity, kindness and righteousness’ (Gupta, 1999:113) and that ‘all life is ‘holy’ in the sense that it has value by itself, inherently (Tahtinen, 1991:215). Findly (2000:343) points out that ‘Hinduism’s attribution of ‘inherent worth’ to animals and plants entails that animals and plants have rights and that all ‘moral agents’ have corresponding duties to respect those rights’.
Closely related to this is the issue of cow slaughter. ‘The cow was elevated to divinity in the Rig Veda. The sage Bhardwaja extols the virtue of the cow in Book VI, Hymn XXVIII of Rig Veda. In Atharva Veda (Book X, Hymn X), the cow is formally designated as Vishnu, and `all that the Sun surveys’ (Swami, 2009). Cow not only provides milk, but cow dung cakes are used to meet energy needs in rural India. Cow dung is rich in nutrients, as well as disinfectant, consequently, farmers use it in abundance as fertiliser along with the cow urine. The male calves are often used as work animals by farmers. Accordingly, the importance of Indian cow (bos indica) for the agrarian society was well-recognised. In recent years, much research has been done on cow urine. Two patents have been granted in the US for cow urine distillate and as DNA protector in China (Swami, 2009). Given the importance of cow for sustainable agriculture, article 48 of the Constitution of India prohibits slaughter of cows, calf, milch and draught cattle.
Harmony not proselytization
Proselytization typically involves propaganda. In so doing, such faiths avoid scrutiny of their own faith and instead find fault with other faiths or engage in spreading of misinformation outright. But in so doing, they create disharmony, suspicion and emotional violence. It is obvious that the sole purpose of proselytizing faiths is to increase market share under the garb of spreading the word of their God which they consider to be the Ultimate Reality. Some engage in outright violence. History is replete with examples of mass murders committed in the name of religion.
Hinduism is not obsessed with increasing its share in the market for world religions. ‘Hinduism’s appeal is universal and individualistic – to the ’inner spiritual man’ and not to the ‘outside social man’ (Mukhyanand, 2000:21). The non-proselytizing nature of Hinduism avoids conflict and promotes harmony. Never ever in its 5,000-year-old history, Hinduism waged religious crusades to impose its world view on others. When all are children of the Divine to whom are you converting asks a Hindu?
Live and let live
Instead of propagating its own world view, Hinduism asserts that there are multiple paths to the divinity and one can choose her/his own. It cuts at the root, the competitive spirit among various faiths which breed one-upmanship and the desire to increase membership of its own commune. Hinduism follows the ‘live and let live’ or the ‘I am OK, you are OK’ approach and helps build harmony which proselytization inherently tends to sap. Hinduism aims to seek unity among diversity. Towards that end, the Yoga philosophy of the great sage Patanjali emphasizes ‘union’ or ‘togetherness’ and suggests the technique to achieve it. The world observes International Yoga Day to affirm these values. Yoga provides ‘the opportunity to relinquish hostility and irritability’ to bring harmony.
Hinduism is not an organised religion. There is no structure or no regimentation whatsoever. Hindus have no organised hierarchical clergy institution (such as the Vatican for example) vested to be the mouth piece for all Hindus (Anandan, 2000). The philosophical work is available for anyone to read, follow, criticise or discard as one pleases signifying a full democracy in the matter of faith. Hindus have no issues with what world view others hold. Hindus merely expect that others should not impose their world view on them. Consequently, when proselytizers repeatedly attack or denigrate the faith of Hindus, the otherwise peace-loving Hindu naturally resists the affront which could potentially create societal tension.
Religious violence is rising the world over. Pew Research found that ‘social hostility such as attacks on minority faiths or pressure to conform to certain norms was strong in one-third of the 198 countries and territories surveyed in 2012, especially in the Middle East and North Africa (Heneghan, 2014). Cole (2013) finds that religious violence killed over 100 million people in twentieth century but interestingly cites only one example where Hindus were the aggressors. The incidence resulted in three deaths and 17 injured. The culprits have been sentenced to life imprisonment.
An authoritarian dogma such as ‘my way is the only way’ and everyone else must conform to it or be ready to be violated creates disharmony. How far is such violence triggered by proselytization? We don’t have empirical data. Brandt (2014) calls proselytization as cultural genocide. It is ‘a kind of structural or systemic violence (Galtung, 1969). Proselytization leading to violence or legal disputes has been reported across the world, for example, in our region in Japan and Indonesia. Religious conversion leading to violence and relevant law in the Indian context have been reviewed by Indian parliamentarian Panda (2014). Kolluru (2012) details how religious conversion is a form of emotional or spiritual violence.
Hinduism nips in the bud inter-religious conflict likely to stem from conversion- whether forced or by allurement. Hindu sages could foresee since antiquity the ill-effects thereof and abstained from it while encouraging rational thinking and gave the choice to individual to choose her/his own path. Hinduism is not about ‘tolerance’ of others (which carries with it a sense of superiority), it is about universal brotherhood.
The caste system
Hinduism sees divinity everywhere. Consequently, going by scriptures Hinduism is an inclusive religion. However, to find fault with Hinduism, proselytizers often refer to the caste (jati) system (a societal classification by birth). While this is an altogether separate topic, and many have written about it, suffice it to note that philosophically, it was a merit-based societal structure (called the Varna system as opposed to Jati which is birth-based). The Bhagvad Gita, specifically mentions that the four categories (varnas) are strictly related to inherent qualities (guna or values) and deeds (karma) of a human being. There are many other scriptural references that specifically mention the merit or aptitude-based and not birth-based caste system, for example, the Skanda Purana mentions that everyone is born a low caste (meaning raw or coarse) and after sanskaras (training) attains higher caste. This scaffolding is like the present education system. People with qualities such as integrity, scholarship, truthfulness were put in the highest category (Brahmin). Those who showed leadership qualities, excellence in warfare were to be Kings (Kshatriyas) and so on. The Varna system according to Swami (2018) was created to avoid concentration of power which is acquired from knowledge, valour, wealth and labour. It seems somewhere down its 5,500 years history, the system got corrupted and became a birth-based social system in defiance of the true spirit of the scriptures. The birth-based caste system is a perversion of the four-fold ‘varna system’ (Knapp) . There are innumerable instances since antiquity of people born in low-caste having risen to prominence that is kings or revered sages. In modern times, prominent intellectuals and political leaders with low-caste background include the present President (Mr Kovind) and Prime Minister of India (Mr Modi). The Indian constitution was drafted by Dr B. R. Ambedkar, a Columbia university trained lawyer who was born in the lower strata of the caste ladder.
Does conversion to other faiths help obliterate caste? Surprisingly not. A survey conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research in India found that caste practices continue even after conversion to Islam or Christianity (Tharoor, n.d.). The caste system is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that conversion helps little to erase it altogether. Hindu organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are making concerted efforts to eradicate caste inequalities through its Samajik Samarasata Manch (Social Cohesion Group). Many prominent leaders from upper caste too have made significant efforts, for example, M. K. Gandhi and V. D. Savarkar. For centuries, Hindu monks have persuaded people to look beyond birth-based caste and focus on Hinduism’s core value which is humanism and seeing divinity all around. Though the caste system has been outlawed in India, it has become a political tool which is exploited by some political parties leading to the perpetuation of the system though the barriers are falling apart albeit slowly. Sihag (2013:317) found that ‘caste has played an important role in the consolidation of business and entrepreneurship in India’. The CSO of the Indian Government notes that 50% of all enterprises (55% for rural) in India in 2005 were owned by the lower-castes.
Idolatry? Far from it !
The most obvious and empirically observable manifestation of Hinduism is what the westerners designate as idolatry (another name for devil worship). To back up such claims, the image of Bhairava or Kali which are the fierce form of Shiva and Parvati respectively are often cited. In a TV program Pat Robinson labelled Hinduism as ‘demonic’ and Nazarenne Missions International, of Kansas City prays to save the South Asians from idolatry and devil worship (Grieve, 2003). Furthermore, Grieve, (2003:3) adds ‘our descriptions of the world are culturally located, our ‘naïve’ descriptions are neither innocent nor objective’.
The actual Sanskrit word is murti. The appropriate word for it is ‘embodiment’ or ‘manifestation’ and not ‘idol’. Various deities are created to represent various qualities of the divine ‘to make God seem more real and approachable’ (Arnett, 2014:19) . ‘South Asian god-images should be understood as ‘mūrtis‟, humanly constructed deities dominated by their material element. God images, furthermore, are brought to life by being enmeshed in a net of social practices’ (Grieve, 2003:1). Many women worship Lord Krishna in the form of a baby, for example, with the objective to achieve oneness ultimately with the divine. Arnett (2014) notes Hinduism is not polytheistic but a monotheistic religion where God is beyond time, space and without physical form. In Yogic practices, the practitioner starts with the focus on the gross idol and gradually shifts it to the Ultimate Reality (Dasgupta, 1922). Accordingly, it is grossly incorrect to say that Hinduism has idol or devil worship. It does have murti worship which is the worship of the divine in a convenient form.
Status of women
In the Hindu scriptures, males and females occupy equal status. ‘The woman embodies shakti, the original Energy of the Universe’ (Wadley, 1977:114). ‘Furthermore, the concept of the innate divinity of man and woman does not raise the question of equality but affirms it’ (Sharada, n.d.). Hindu mythology does have women as Goddesses of Wealth (Lakshmi), of knowledge (Saraswati) and of valour (Durga). Sita embodies the virtuous wife in the Ramayana yet there is also Draupadi in Mahabharata who is disrobed in Assembly by the Kauravas. The mention of Sati or Uma or Parvati as wife of Shiva appears in the Upanishads itself.
The Manu Smriti, often discredited for disempowering women, affirms ‘yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra Devata, (Manusmriti, III 3.55-s3.60) – divinity is to be found where women are honoured. Yet the critics of Hinduism refer to a verse in the Manu Smriti (III 9.3) which states that a woman is protected by father in childhood, by husband when adult and by son when she is old, accordingly she has no independence. However, they conveniently forget the context in which the aphorism is included. A large part of Chapter IX of Manu Smriti is devoted to the duties of a man towards a woman. If we put verse III 9.3, within this context then it appears that Manu included it as a matter of fact statement. and not implying that her position should be that way or giving a direction to deprive her of independence. For if that was the intention then that would have reverberated across other aphorisms too, yet the aphorism (III 3.55-3.60) runs counter to III 9.3. Since we are considering, women’s status in a Smriti text of Hinduism (1,250 BCE), we need to consider similar texts of other religions too. One thousand years later, according to Friedman and Dolansky (2011), the Bible states “Your desire will be for your man, and he’ll dominate you (Genesis 3:16)”. Similarly, the Corinthians 11:3-10 in the New Testament include the following: ‘For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head’ and ‘for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore, the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels’. ‘According to the New Testament women cannot be leaders in the church, but they can help their husbands lead. Women should concentrate their efforts in the sphere of the home’ (Deffinbaugh, 2004: n.d.). Titus 2:3-5 ‘encourage the young women to ……..being subject to their own husbands’. Furthermore, ‘1 Tim. 2:11-15 which adds that they must not teach or ‘have authority’ over men’ (Bailey, 2000:6). Similarly, nearly 2,000 years later, around 600 CE, according to Sura 4.34 of Koran: “Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more than the other […]. As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, and beat them!”.
The present status of Hindu women presents some glaring contradictions. While women occupy /have occupied positions of power in India (President, Prime Minister, Defence Minister etc), the lot of the ordinary Hindu women especially in rural India (low literacy, economic dependency, female foeticide, child marriages and dowry deaths) deserves serious attention. However, the roots thereof could be easily traced to economic issues that confront women- especially rural women. Branding a woman as a witch and burning her took place in Europe in late 18th century too. Offenhaur (2005: 1-2)’s report published by the US Library of Congress found that ‘Women in Muslim societies and communities face gender-based inequalities associated with the so-called “patriarchal gender system’. She adds: ‘The sacred writings of Islam, like those of the other Abrahamic faiths⎯Christianity and Judaism⎯have been interpreted in ways that support patriarchal social relations. Until the last two decades, Western observers of the plight of Muslim women have portrayed Islam as uniquely patriarchal and incompatible with women’s equality. Most scholars now see Islam as no more inherently misogynist than the other major monotheistic traditions’.
Hinduism and euthanasia
Ganga (1994:292) in her thesis on Hinduism and euthanasia found that ‘the Smritis, the Puranas and the Mahabharata strongly oppose suicide, but they also advise the people suffering from irremediable diseases to end their lives by yoga practices, by fasting to death, entering the sacred fire or immersing themselves in the Ganges until they drown’. Mahatma Gandhi’s disciple Vinoba Bhave embraced death by prayopavesa (fasting). ‘Prayopavesa is not regarded as suicide because it is natural and non-violent and is acceptable only for spiritually advanced people under specified circumstances. Abortion is similarly prohibited by Hindu scriptures but indicates situations where it can be practiced’ (Nimbalkar, 2007:57). Some sects of Hinduism consider it a moral obligation to reduce suffering of a human-being and support euthanasia (Shekhawat et.al. 2018).
Hindu view on LGBTI
Hindus living in Western countries are sometimes asked about the Hindu view on LGBTI. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism is not hostile to the LGBTI. Hinduism’s central message is addressed to the spiritual-self not the social-self and consequently doesn’t discuss sexuality. Hinduism considers everything to be divine, humans (men, women, third gender), animals, nature and accordingly doesn’t discriminate at the spiritual level. The purnas and sculptures such as that at Khajuraho (10th century) are replete with instances of LGBTI, for example, Arjuna (as Brihannada), or Shikhandi (in Mahabharata). Wilhelm (2008) has published nearly 600 pages of scholarly work on the Tritiya Prakriti (Third Gender). A summary thereof is provided by GALVA-108 (2014) .
Becoming a Hindu
Given the openness of Hinduism people the world over are getting attracted to it. Noted celebrities who are practicing Hindus include Hollywood actress Julia Roberts, and George Harrison of the Beatles . Mark Zuckerberg -CEO of Facebook – recently said ‘that a trip to India at the urging of Steve Jobs played a crucial role in Facebook’s development’… ‘go visit this temple in India that he had gone to early in the evolution of Apple’ Steve told him. As stated already, Hinduism’s emphasis is on the spiritual-self not the social-self. Accordingly, if you are following the spiritual path of any religion, you are automatically on the Hindu way of life. However, some religions that are exclusivist put you in a cage and ban you from exploring other spiritual paths. Hinduism gives you freedom of choice and doesn’t put you in any cage. Freeing yourself from the cage and opening to the possibilities of spiritual progress offered by other thoughts means you are ipso facto a Hindu. Consequently, it is just your choice to free yourself from the shackles that are binding you. Just say I am a free man and you are a Hindu automatically. However, for those who want some formal process, organisations such as the ISKCON or the Arya Samaj can help. You can thereafter progress your journey further. The Hindu Council of Australia can also guide.
As can be seen from this short paper, Hinduism presents an inclusive way of life which is not adversarial to any other thought or ways of worship. As a matter of fact, instead of demeaning other belief systems, Hinduism respects all and considers it to be just yet another human effort at seeking the Ultimate Reality. It is environmental friendly and has emphasized for generations to respect/worship nature. For a Hindu, rivers, mountains, trees, animals and for that matter the entire ecology is sacred. Consequently, a Hindu strives to live in harmony with it and not damage it. Vasudhaiva kutumbakam – the whole world as a big family- sums up the core psyche of the Hindus. Hinduism presents a rational system that allows full scope for discussion and debates. The process it follows for advancing the claims is very similar to qualitative research approaches commonly used in social sciences research. The innate strength of Hinduism has seen it through the violence perpetrated myopic religions with an expansionist agenda. Consequently, this 5,500-year-old tradition not only continues but is also thriving to date. Hinduism holds the key to create societal harmony. Ahimsa (non-violence in thought and action) is the cornerstone of Hindu philosophy. One of the internationally known Hindu scholars Swami Vivekanand said ‘Garvase Kaho Hum Hindu Hai’ or ‘Say it with pride that we are Hindus’. The large heartedness of Hindu thought has been aptly summed up in the following Sanskrit prayer:
ॐ सर्वे भवन्तु सुखिनःसर्वे सन्तु निरामयाः।सर्वे भद्राणि पश्यन्तु मा कश्चिद्दुःखभाग्भवेत् ।ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥ May everyone be happy, may everyone be free from all diseases, may everyone see goodness and auspiciousness in everything, may none be unhappy or distressed. Om peace, peace, peace!
Brief bio of the author
Milind Sathye is Professor of Banking and Finance at the University of Canberra. He worked for nearly two decades in the Reserve Bank of India / NABARD before becoming an academic. Frequently, consulted by the media, for his subject expertise, he has appeared on ABC News, 7.30 Report, ABC Inside Business, Sky News, Al Jazeera, Yahoo Finance, Bloomberg TVs and in Swiss, Italian, Indian, South Korean and Columbian media among others. NASDAQ website hosted his recent interview on Bloomberg. The Federal Court of Australia and Victorian Supreme Court, among others as well as the Australian Parliament’s Senate Economics Committees sought his expertise on many occasions (some of his recommendations have been implemented by the Australian government). He contributes opinion pieces in the Australian Financial Review, Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian and others. He is keenly interested in Upanishadic Philosophy and has delivered talk on Hinduism at Multicultural events in Queensland, Sydney and at the Indian High Commission, Canberra. He contributes to ABC Religion and Ethics section periodically. In 2017, he received community service award at the hands of ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr.
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