by Teviot Fairservis
Hinduism is not just a religion, it is a way of life, a way of light, and a way of truth.
Visit a Hindu home anywhere in the world and look around. Somewhere -- tucked in a corner of the living room, on a calendar in the kitchen, on a bedside table - you will find a statue or painting of a god, hero or monster. Some favorites are Ganesha, the elephant god, whose task is to clear away “red tape” and bureaucracy, and Lord Krishna, a blue-skinned man with a charming, mischievous grin. Near the image, you will probably find an incense holder, incense, and perhaps a bowl of food. Flowers may be found in a vase or a necklace braided of flowers may hang about the image. This is a family altar. Hindu worshippers maintain a very personal connection to the divine beings from the centuries old Hindu stories. The daily practice of talks with divine beings, prayers, meditation, and contemplation of the spiritual in daily existence are fundamental to Hindu life.
Divine figures are believed to have mystical powers to guide and change lives here on earth. Children are raised with stories, which describe the characters of the so-called “Hindu pantheon (many gods).” Hinduism is often summed up as a religion with a multiplicity of gods with human-like characteristics; however, this is only a surface description of a complex system. It might be more accurate to say that Hinduism is a way of life and a culture. The culture stands out from others by its unusual fostering of spirituality through stories of the gods. The decisions they made, the actions they took, and the creeds they lived by provide models for human behavior. It can be a high compliment to say that a person is like a god or hero from Hindu mythology.
This world is “maya,” an illusion that masks the true reality, which is that of Brahman, or the universal God force. Each soul participates in the various realities according to his “dharma,” or prescribed duty to God. The sum of his actions in past lives constitutes his “karma.” If he has accumulated sufficient good actions through many lives, he may be freed from the continuous cycle or wheel, and released into “nirvana” or the ultimate bliss of union with God. Until that time, a soul is doomed to be incarnated repeatedly in order to gain knowledge, develop spiritual understanding, and increase in divinity.
The aim of this life therefore is always the gaining of spiritual understanding. “Samadhi” is that state of transcendence and pure experience of the divine attained through meditation and purity in thought, word, and deed. Throughout India to this day, there are ascetics, hermits, and “living saints” who have attained this special state. Scientists have studied advanced meditators and record that they have the abilities to control their brain waves, breath, heart rate and other body functions beyond normal human capacity. Some Westerners, including students of “TM” at the university founded in the U.S. by the famous guru, Maharashi Mahesh Yogi, even have the ability to levitate off the ground.
One of the oldest spiritual texts in the world, the RG Veda, records this prayer:
“May my speech be one with my mind, and may my mind be one with my speech. O thou self-luminous Brahman, remove the veil of ignorance from before me, that I may behold thy light. Do thou reveal to me the spirit of the scriptures. May the truth of the scriptures be ever present to me. May I seek day and night to realize what I learn from the sages. May I speak the truth of Brahman. May I speak the truth. May it protect me. May it protect my teacher. Om... peace-peace-peace.”
LITTLE INDIA, GREATER INDIA India or “Bharat” remains the geographical center of Hinduism today. However, Hindu temples can be found in most major cities of the world that serve a local community of worshippers. In London, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, almost anywhere that immigrants have settled, Indian and South Asian communities continue their religious practices in new contexts. Social and religious “Hindu Societies” maintain a sense of community by sharing in the celebrations and rituals of the Hindu year.
Throughout South and Southeast Asia, Hinduism intermixes with Buddhism, Muslim practices, and animism to form regionally distinct styles. The island of Bali in Indonesia is considered to have one of the strongest Hindu communities outside of India. The Mahatma Gandhi is said to have called the island, “the morning of the world” for both its beauty and its preservation of some of the oldest Hindu traditions. From Tibet to Thailand and Malaysia, even to some extent in the Philippines, knowledge of Hindu stories, philosophy, rites and rituals shape daily worship and ongoing religious practices.
Anthropologists describe India as divided between “Little” or “Village” India and Greater India4. Of the more than one billion who live in the Republic of India, now the 2nd most populous country on the planet after China, 80% or more are considered to be Hindus (1,029,000 + as of July 2001 statistics). But their individual beliefs, their knowledge of scripture, the particular gods and goddesses who they worship may differ radically. There are some 550,000 villages and about 200 major towns and cities. One small village may hold feasts honoring Hanuman the monkey god, while the next may be devoted to Ganesha the elephant. To this day, there are estimates that only 54% of the population are literate, meaning that nearly half the people in India cannot read or write. Therefore the general knowledge of the rest of the world is limited. There are 18 official languages, including Hindi and English, with some 120 subgroup languages, which further divide neighbor from understanding neighbor. Millions of people survive today in villages going on with their lives as their families have for millennia.
In “Little India” or “Village India,” daily life is shaped by the rituals of the Hindu year. Local temples provide a focus for community events such as “Diwali,” the joyous fall festival of lights when candles are lit throughout the village, an occasion for dances, singing, and performances of various kinds. Festival celebrations can include such delightful events as the game played in the spring at “Holi” of throwing colored powders and dyed water on worshippers, gift exchanges, flowers, and feasting. “Lila” plays form the central activity of many festivals with regions specializing in the production of large-scale performances re-enacting the lives of characters from Hindu stories. With huge puppets, live elephants, masked dancers, parades, street vendors and open markets; the Lila events are often huge spectacles drawing several hundred thousand people.
By contrast with “peasant” or village life, India also produces some of the leading engineers, computer experts, film producers, writers, and other intellectual and technological leaders in the world. The educational system retains ties to the British school system. Superior universities prepare candidates for work in multinational corporations in India and overseas. “Greater India” participates as an equal in world politics. The constitution created at the end of British rule is considered one of the most advanced documents of its kind with such “cutting edge” provisions as equal rights for women. Its main tenets, however, can be seen interestingly to derive from or react against the Hindu traditional laws. An ongoing dilemma for Hindus, especially imigris, is the integration of ancient traditions with neocolonialism and contemporary globalization.
The Hindu World-View
Ancient Sanskrit texts form the basis for Hindu thought. Combining philosophy and practical advice, documents date back nearly 10,000 years. Hinduism is distinguished from other religions that arose in India such as Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and lesser known tribal animistic teachings by its scriptures. The Vedas, like the Bible and the Koran, are considered be divine in origin. While most other sacred writings are delivered through a messenger (Moses, Mohammed, etc.), the Vedas claim to be the direct transmissions of God's word, a knowledge that predates the created universe. They are revealed truths (srutis). The chief texts are known as the Four Vedas: the Rg (Rk), Sama, Yajur, and the later Atharva Veda. Each of these texts is comprised of hymns or mantras (Samhitas), rituals and devotional practices (Brahmanas), and additional corrections and explanations (Aranyakas). Sacred knowledge (Upanishads) i to be accumulated by study of the Vedas and practice of their teachings.
The sacred poems called the Puranas, usually attributed to the poet Vyasa, retell the abstract truths of the Vedas in a more accessible style. Allegories and other kinds of stories expand the myths and historical legends of gods, saints and heroes. As Swami Prabhavananda points out in “The Spiritual Heritage of India,” while in the older Vedas, the chief gods are Indra, Mitra, Varuna and Skanda, in the Puranas, they are “transformed” into a trinity, the Trimurti, which govern and sum up the universe. He quotes the Visnu (Vishnu) Purana, “The Lord God, though one without a second, assumes the three forms respectively of Brahma, Visnu, and Siva, for creation, preservation, and dissolution of the world.” Six of the Puranas are devoted to Brahma, six to Visnu, six to Siva for a total of eighteen poems.
THE HINDU CREATION MYTH In the Bhagavatam, the most famous of the Puranas, the universe is conceived as “mahayuga,” a series of cycles “of creation and dissolution with no beginning or end.” The Creation Story tells that Brahma, god as the creator, was resting beneath the ocean in the realm of Naga, the king of serpents. Brahma felt a stirring and suddenly a full-blown Lotus was born on the surface of the ocean. Brahma seated himself on the floating Lotus and looked in all directions for any other beings. Not seeing anyone around but feeling a desire for knowledge, he meditated, seeking knowledge within himself. There he found Truth, God himself, in his own heart, and looking around he now saw God everywhere. And the voice of God told him to create the world out of God. “Creation is only the projection into form of that which already exists.” So Brahma drew the wind and the waters of the sea into the Lotus, and divided it into the three spheres - heaven, earth and sky. He gave the world the four Vedas - the wisdom of God. The first humans he created were saints who immediately fell into meditation and were not interested in the world. This would be the end of the humans if some solution could not be found. As Brahma was meditating, he found his own form dividing, and so directly from Brahma's being came the first man, Manu, and the first woman, Shatarupa, the parents of all human beings.
In the Puranas are also found early mentions of characters who will become the subject of many later works. As a child in a Hindu community, you are told two stories in particular which profoundly shape your view of the world: The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. The leading characters are gods incarnate and offer models for right behavior.
THE RAMAYANA “The Ramayana” or the “Way of Prince Rama” is one of the world's great love stories. It is the classic “rescue” tale in which a beautiful princess, Sita, is kidnapped by a demon known as Ravana (or Rahwana) and is rescued by her husband, Prince Rama, with the help of the white monkey god, Lord Hanuman. The Ramayana poem runs to about 2000 verses (“slokas”). Depictions or references to its scenes and characters appear in statuary, reliefs on wood and stone, in textile designs, even street signs. In festivals, theatre, music, puppetry and dance, the story is re-enacted as both secular story and sacred rite. Performances may last as long as thirty nights to retell the favorite scenes. In the famous “Ram Lila” festivals, young boys are dressed as the lead characters and are believed to become their living incarnations. A hundred thousand or more worshippers crowd about the boys to touch their garments and receive their blessings. It is said that hearing this story blesses the listener with good fortune in their spiritual life. The final reunion of the prince and princess are celebrated in the annual fall festival of lights, “Diwali.”
THE MAHABHARATA The Mahabharata” traces the fortunes of five brothers, all warrior princes who are ousted and must battle to regain their rulership. Prince Arjuna and his four brothers (the Pandavas or Pandawas) are about to enter a great battle to rescue their kingdom from their 100 cousins, the (Kauravas or Kurawas). As chief advisor to the Pandava court, Lord Krishna offers to be the charioteer to the prince. On arrival at the battlefield, Arjuna orders the chariot to stop. He steps out and kneels on the ground in anguish that he must fight and kill his own cousins. Krishna chides Arjuna's for his concerns.
This scene, known as the “Bhagavad Gita” episode in the Mahabharata, is considered the most significant; it provides the central study of Hindu scholars and worshippers. It is reported that Gandhi studied the episode daily as he developed his 20th century approach to non-violent protest. Known as “the Gita,” the title is translated as “The Song of God.” Its significance lies in the revelation of the divine will. Krishna explains why Arjuna must go forward with the battle offering a number of arguments. Each time Arjuna remains unconvinced, Krishna reveals more and more of the divine purpose of the battle. At length, Kishna resorts to showing the doubting prince that he is really a god in disguise, appearing in his full divine and terrifying form.
Krishna's main argument, which forms a central tenet of Hindu thought, is that each soul is born into a role, which they must fulfill. No one can avoid their destiny or the will of the gods. Humans cannot know the ultimate divine plans but must fulfill their intended roles. Arjuna was born a Kshatriya (Ka shatriya), a warrior prince. It is his duty (dharma) to do that, which is best for the kingdom. His personal concerns, his duty to his family, all are secondary to his role ordained at birth, of protector king. The gods have decreed the battle will go forward, no matter his doubts or procrastination. It is better to surrender to the will of the gods, scolds Krishna, and to fulfill the demands of your class and the role given to you as a birthright.
A core concept of the contemporary Hindu worldview is the Bhagavad Gita's admonition to fulfill the role given to you at birth. Hindu thought conceives of a separation of soul and body. The soul passes through many bodies in a series of reincarnations. A majority of Hindus (and Buddhists) are vegetarians, refusing to eat meat or kill animals on grounds that the bodies may be those of incarnated relatives. The fulfillment of a pre-destined role for your soul underlies the complex system of caste marriages. Newspapers in India are filled with advertisements for spouses of suitable caste. Priests and astrologers are consulted to ensure appropriateness of family, dates of birth and marriage, and rites and offerings. Correctness is seen as in accordance with divine law. Divinity is understood throughout the culture to be present at all times and in all places. Many visitors are enthralled by India because even the poorest and most illiterates seem to have this sense of divine presence(s). India is often called one of the most spiritual places on the planet. The Bhagavad Gita reminds that any being you meet, whether human or animal, is a divine being. A standard greeting is a slight bow with palms together at the solar plexus and the word, “Namaste,” which is translated by yoga teachers around the world as “the divine (or god/goddess) in me greets the divine in you.”
In various communities, especially among tribal peoples throughout India and Southeast Asia, trances are invoked in which divine voices speak or act, offering guidance to the community. It is not considered unusual for a sick person to be found by a healer to be possessed of a harmful spirit, or for a statue or a masked performer to become animated by a god's presence. In recent years, as an example, statues of the elephant god Ganesha were the subject of news stories. It seemed that the god was drinking the offerings of milk placed before him. It was discovered that a king cobra living behind the statue was consuming the milk. However, this did not seem to lessen the sense of the divine presence taking action to bless the community of worshippers.
YOGA Given the immanent and eternal presence of the Divine, what should a soul do during this incarnation? What is right thought, word and deed? This is the subject of yoga, the practices that lead to union with the Divine. The yogi becomes a master through long repetition and expanding knowledge of spiritual practices such as jnana yoga, the path of union through knowledge, raja yoga or the path of realization through meditation and psychic control, bhakti yoga, the path of realization through love and devotion; and karma yoga, the path of union through work. Yoga provides specific practices including meditations, prayers, chants, physical exercises (hatha yoga) and breath control (pranayam) which all aid in developing spiritual understanding.
The guru or master teacher continues an ancient tradition dating back to the Vedas. Gurus choose to transmit the teachings as a further stage in their spiritual progression. Like the Boddhisattva in Buddhist traditions, some gurus even choose to return through several incarnations to continue to transmit the spiritual teachings to succeeding generations.
Arjuna asks Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita a troubling question: “Suppose a man has faith, but does not struggle hard enough? His mind wanders away from the practice of yoga and he fails to reach perfection. What will become of him then?...Is he not lost, as a broken cloud is lost in the sky?”
Sri Krishna answered: “No, my son. That man is not lost, either in this world or the next. No one who seeks Brahman ever comes to an evil end. Even if a man falls away from the practice of yoga, he will still win the heaven of the doers of good deeds, and dwell there many long years. After that, he will be reborn into the home of pure and prosperous parents. He may even be born into a family of illumined yogis. He will then regain that spiritual discernment which he acquired in his former body; and so he will strive harder than ever for perfection...By struggling hard, and cleansing himself of all impurities, that yogi will move gradually toward perfection through many births, and reach the highest goal at last.”
THE TANTRAS Both Hatha Yoga practice and Ayurvedic medicine refer to the divine role in which each soul participates from birth. Ayurveda refers to three major body types and multiple subsets. Healing is a matter of supporting the body to fulfill its birth role, thus allowing the soul to fulfill its spiritual task for this incarnation. Disease is departure from dharma; health has to do with being in union with one's divinely predestined ordered path. The Hindu (and also the Tibetan Buddhist) Tantras are texts that outline philosophy, ritual and spiritual disciplines towards a goal to be undertaken with the guidance of a guru (sadhana), and attainments from these practices (siddhi). Each body is conceived as a microcosm of the universe. The chakras or points of consciousness in a body hold and activate the divine scripts for the given soul. Each person then has divine energy unmanifested within. In Kundalini Yoga, as described in the Tantric scriptures and writings and oral history of the Sikh gurus, this power within is seated at the base of the spine coiled up like a serpent. By the practice of certain exercises, the energy is enabled to rise through each of seven chakras or energy or “consciousness” centers in the body.
Each chakra is seated at a particular place on the human body and has a particular knowledge connected to it. The lower three chakras are the “animal passions” for survival (1st-root), reproduction (2nd -genitalia and belly), territorial power (3rd-solar plexus). As consciousness is raised through yoga practice, a spiritual awakening occurs at the level of the heart (4th). A sense of the power of Divine Love and wonder at the glory of God is associated with this awakening. With continued practice and devotion, energy or vibrations move up into the throat chakra (5th) at which point the practitioner speaks only of God. When the consciousness rises to the “third eye” between the eyebrows (6th), “man becomes merged ito divine consciousness. There is still left in him, however, the consciousness of a separate ego.” In the last and most difficult part of this ascension process, the boundaries dissolve. At the 7th chakra, located in the brain near the top of the head, “when one rises to this plane, there is samadhi. That is the transcendental consciousness, in which one realizes his oneness with God.”
HINDUISM IN THE WEST Raising “kundalini energy” has been a focus since the 1960's for many Western yoga schools and Hindu-based spiritual groups in the U.S. and Europe. Reported as a sensation of intense energy traveling up the spinal column, many Western yoga students have had difficulty integrating the energy. Some have felt it to be like an electrical overload; some even felt their nervous system as short-circuited by the intensity. Others report upsetting changes taking place in their personal lives, which seem connected to the practices. The yoga practices provide spiritual changes which are experiential: both physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually (disease is often described as the manifestation of spiritual issues on first the planes of spirit, then in the mind, then in the emotions, and if unresolved, eventually in physical illness). As Swami Prabhavananda notes, “The authority of the scriptures does not depend upon mere belief in them as revelations, but upon the fact that their truths can be revealed in one's own soul.”
Seen from a healing perspective, raising the kundalini serves to energize circuits and raise consciousness. Some teachers explain the process as clearing a channel for the presence of the Higher Self or the Divine energy to communicate with the body more effectively. The Sikh Kundalini Yoga practices in the U.S. as taught by Yogi Bhajan aim at helping a person to become “healthy, happy, holy” or 3HO as the practitioners call their nonprofit organization.
Yoga and Hindu meditation and scriptural study first came to the U.S. in the late 1800's with the visit of the Swami Vivekananda. Centers including one near Woodstock, NY which propagate his early teachings. The famous “Autobiography of a Yogi” details yoga practices and how the teachings relate to experiences working in the U.S. The Sivenanda Retreats found in upstate New York, the Bahamas, California and India, and specialized centers such as Kripalu in Lenox, MA continue to train and develop ways to teach Westerners the principles and practices of yoga and Hinduism. Yoga teachers are found in nearly every U.S. city and town, each with their own adaptations of traditional practices. Perhaps the most famous in the late 20th century was Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose followers included members of the Beatles. His “Transcendental Meditation” practices were popularized in the late 60's and now TM University and other related institutions have branches throughout the world. Several famous Americans, including Ram Dass, first known for his work with Timothy Leary on ecstatic experiences through the drug LSD, have devoted themselves to yogic practice and the search for enlightenment through Hindu studies. His writings and recordings offer insights into personal experience of yoga and meditation as paths to spiritual development for Western culture.
CONCLUSION As one of the oldest religions in the world, Hinduism retains its vitality and central tenets despite its long history dating close to 5000 years. The heritage of the Sanskrit scholars during India's Golden Age (ca. 200 B.C. to 200 A.D.) is preserved in the daily devotions of yogis and disciples alike. Hindu thought has had profound impact on the formation and principles of most of the other major religions; in the Apocrypha, Gnostic and Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) Christianity, for example, and in many pagan traditions, there are references to a story that Jesus traveled to India and was inspired to preach of a more compassionate God by his encounters there. Buddhism takes many of its antecedents from Hindu traditions; while the distinctions between Hindu and Muslim in India led to Partition and the establishment of the Muslim states of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Still to this day, Hindus and Muslims live in close contact and daily influence. Hinduism continues to provide teachings and inspiring views of paths to health, right conduct, and spiritual enlightenment for students around the world.
Teviot is the Director of East West Arts in Cornwall Bridge, CT