Chapter Seventeen: Hinduism
Hindus refer to their faith as the eternal religion. It is by far the most varied and polytheistic of the major religions. Hindu theology developed gradually over time in the Indus valley, beginning with four enormous works collectively known as the Vedas. Hindus believe these sacred scripts were imparted to humans directly from the gods. (101 Q Hinduism p 8) It is only in recent history that any of these great works have became known to the western world. Henry D. Thoreau had this to say about these ancient works: "What extracts from the Vedas I have read fall on me like the light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum -- free from particulars, simple, universal." (Reincarnation In World Thought p35)
According to M. Winternitz: "... whatever view we may adopt on the problem of the antiquity of Indian literature, we can safely say that the oldest monument of the literature of the Indians is at the same time the oldest monument of Indo-European literature which we possess." (Reincarnation In World Thought p35) According to Nicol Macnicol the vedas are "... earlier than that of either Greece or Israel and reveals a high level of civilization among those who found in it the expression of their worship." (Reincarnation In World Thought p35)
Of central importance in the teachings of the Vedas is the idea that there are many deities in the heavens that are directly involved in the running of the world. For example, there are separate divine beings involved with the sun, moon, storms, luck and fertility. Priests would attempt to win over the favor of these gods be reciting specific prayers and performing rituals. Here is a typical example dedicated to Agni, the sun god.
"Resplendent with thy wide-extending lustre, dispel the terrors of the fiends who hate us.
One central feature of many rituals was to offer the gods a special drink called Soma, made from milk and a sacred plant. A hereditary class of holy men call Brahman were in charge of this religious activities and were held in high regard by the Indian people. This for example is a Soma based hymn dedicated to the deity Indra:Bring sacrificial gifts to him, Omniscient, for he longs to drink,
The Wanderer who comes with speed, the Hero ever in the van.
With Soma go ye nigh to him chief drinker of the Soma's juice:
With beakers to the Impetuous God, to Indra with the drops effused.
(The Rig Veda, Book VI Hymn XLII 102)
But all the various gods in the Hindu pantheon were not considered entirely separate from each other. Even in this most ancient of Hindu texts there existed the idea of a great, transcendental absolute that formed a higher reality to the deities. Perhaps the best English translation for this difficult concept is the Ultimate Reality: a state that is neither creation nor non-creation. Other names sometimes used in English translations include Brahman, the Uncreate, or simply God. It is a concept that includes the potential of all physical existence without actually being that existence. It is also sometimes referred to as a form of pure consciousness.
To help understand the concept of the Ultimate Reality, it is useful to explore Hindu creation mythology. While the Middle Eastern monotheistic religions developed a belief in a recent and singular creation of existence by God, the Vedas teach about a cyclical creation process. In the Ultimate Reality state there was no physical existence, no form or substance to the cosmos. But the Ultimate Reality does contain a pervading consciousness that holds the essence of the creator gods. These creator gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in particular, are what start the physical manifestation of each cycle of physical existence.
During the cycles of creation there are times when no physical substance exists. Before the gods are made manifest there exists the Ultimate Reality alone. Hindu theologians feel that words alone cannot fully describe just exactly what this state is. But here is one attempt by Stella Kramrisch:
"The state before creation is beyond the polarity of opposites. It is as vast as chaos, but having no qualities whatsoever, it lacks disorder. It is know in later Indian mystical realization as brahman; it is realized through samadhi (at-onement) as moksa (release), nirvana (extinction of the flame of life), sunyata (emptiness). These names apply to an inner realization of that state beyond the last frontiers of thought." (The Presence of Siva p 25)
In the Ultimate Reality there does exist a potential division of divine beings, each of which would become manifested in each cycle of creation. But each cycle seems to have a different form of the creation story, hence the virtual popery of Hindu creation stories. This Ultimate Reality is believed to have created all things, first by creating what is described as Golden Egg. From this first form then physical and supernatural existence was created:
"In the total darkness in which the universe lay immersed, as if in deep sleep, was the Self-existent, Svayambhu, who is inconceivable, indiscernible, and eternal, and who contains all created beings. He desired to produce creatures of many kinds from his own inconceivable body. First, with a thought, he created the waters and placed his seen in them. That seed became a golden egg, brilliant like the sun. In that egg he himself was born a male, as Brahma, the progenitor of the whole world." (The Presence of Siva p 211-212)
Kramrisch describes the Vedic stories of this creation as follows:
"According to the hymn, there was in the beginning neither nonexistence nor existence, neither death nor life. Ensconced in an impenetrable flood of dark emptiness there was mind only; in inner incandescence (tapas), mind became, was "born" as Abhu, the life potential. It was overcome by desire (kama) and "that one" (tad ekam) was the first seed of mind (manas). From this seed sprouted the entire creation." (The Presence of Siva p 216)
One version of these stories involves Shiva (or Vishnu in other sects) as the great protector of the Ultimate Reality in its unmanifested form. Shiva acts to prevent the other Gods in their pure conscious states from spilling out the Ultimate Reality and letting loose the next cycle of existence. For Hindus this is seen as a good thing, for in the Ultimate Reality of pure consciousness we are all in a sense bound in a divine ecstasy. In the process of preventing the other gods from successfully mating and altering the apparently delicate balance of the Ultimate Reality, Shiva, described as a hunter, shoots an arrow at one of the other gods, usually depicted as Brahma. Distracted at the critical moment, Brahma spills his seed out of the Ultimate Reality, causing the formation of the physical world.
It is important to understand that Hindu theologians consider all human descriptions of these beings and events to be mere shadows of their reality, that the gods take on what appear to be human forms only so that we can begin to understand them. The human forms of the gods are considered to be more for our benefit than any real description of what the gods actually are.
The body of God, though it is conceived as resembling the body of man, is not like it. Its substance is prakti, not matter. Yet the figures of myth show themselves in anthropomorphic or theriomorphic allusions or semblance without which, paradoxically, they could not act, be recognized, or communicate their meaning. Man, in his physical body, is but a halting place, a condensation that prakrti deposits on earth, before this body is dissolved and annihilated. Yet the likeness of the physical body of man and its parts is lent to the images of the gods. Through them the gods communicate their being. (The Presence of Siva p 173)
In other words, when Shiva shoots an arrow with a bow at a manifestation of Brahma, who is depicted as a mating antelope, it is believed that these are only the metaphoric images that humans must use to understand the divine.
Once Brahma's primal seed of creation has fractured the pure state of the Ultimate Reality, a new cycle of existence has begun. Each cycle goes through four different eras lasting billions of years, each a less perfect manifestation of the previous one. Inevitably Shiva will consume the final era in a great fire of destruction, returning existence back into its pristine absolute state of the Ultimate Reality. Kramrisch gives these descriptions of the cycle of destruction and renewal:
"The extinction at the end of creation is not a return to, but only a symbol of, the Uncreate. This darkness appears periodically at the end of a world and before the creation of the next cosmos." (The Presence of Siva p 83)
"When at the end of days Siva in his tamas nature draws the cosmos into dissolution, it disintegrates into darkness of nonbeing. It is without shapes, an indefinable continuum, yet unlike the Uncreate. Disintegration of the cosmos prefigures reintegration into the integrity of the Uncreate." (The Presence of Siva p 83)
Although Shiva seems to try to prevent the spilling of the Ultimate Reality into creation, Hindu theologians believe that it is Shiva who actually has given the seed of Brahma the power to make physical form and life. Shiva has given the fire of life into all plants and animals, and is ultimately responsible for the existence of human beings. But again it is important to understand that all the gods of Hinduism are considered subservient to the concept of the Ultimate Reality.
Subramuniyaswami explains the relationship between the Ultimate Reality and the Hindu pantheon as follows:
"The center of Hinduism is the Absolute, the timeless, formless, spaceless God who manifests as Pure Consciousness and as the most perfect form conceivable, the Primal Soul. He radiates out from that form as a myriad of Gods and Goddesses who inhabit the temples and bless the people, inspire the scriptures, inspire the spiritual leaders and uplift humanity in general. It is one God in many forms." (Loving Ganesha p xlix)
The idea of the Ultimate Reality becomes critical to understanding Hinduism when we examine a central supernatural feature of the religion. Hindus believe that each human has a supernatural soul which, much like the cycling of creation, also goes from one physical manifestation to another. This reincarnation is a vital theme to human life for many Hindus, as it explains a person's life and provides a goal to be achieved. Another important term in Hindu theology is the concept called dharma. In its simplest form dharma means the law of justice and morality. To live by dharma means to be moral and just in all facets of your life. During a persons life their actions accumulate a type of cosmic moral consequence called karma. To live a life by following the rules and values of dharma create positive karma. In other words, the more moral and just actions a person does, the more positive karma they accumulate. The more immoral and unjust actions a person does, the more negative karma they accumulate.
Central to this belief is the concept of reincarnation, the transmigration of souls. "As a man puts on new clothes after discarding the old ones, so also does the embodied spirit enter into new bodies after giving up the old ones" (Gita 2:22). Death is but a temporary wait in a supernatural world, a transition from one life to the next. Brahma (or lessor deities under his control) keeps track of each person's karma, the measurement of how much good versus evil they have done in their lifetime. When a human dies, they enter a supernatural world where the positive and negative accumulation of karma are compared, the Hindu version of Judgement Day. Individuals who created good karma are rewarded by being reincarnated into the body of someone in a superior state. This would mean a life of good health, wealth and prosperity. Those who failed to follow the laws of dharma are punished by being reincarnated into the lower position of someone who is unhealthy, unattractive and poor. This creates the idea that the world is ultimately just, as every single action is either rewarded or punished by the gods.
One of the historic results of this belief is the caste system, the belief that each person should accept the social level they are born into as their divinely sanctioned lot in life. The Hindu worldview maintains that living a life based on personal responsibility, Darhma, will eventually bring just rewards in a future life. To fight against the caste system established by Brahma was historically believed to cause bad karma.
Most Hindu theologians consider the doctrines of karma and reincarnation to be the central tenants of their faith. (Loving Ganesha p 205) But is important to point out that different schools of Hinduism have different views on these concepts. In fact is it very difficult to give an entirely orthodox description of the religion because there is so much variation on belief. The following remarks by theologian John Renard bear witness to this problem:
"People who talk (as I have here) about Hinduism as though it were one large family of related belief systems often make assumptions about this larger "Hinduism" that no believing Hindu who belongs to one of its may sub-communities ever would. For most individual believers, Hinduism does not mean the whole amazing panoply of names and forms and ritual and history described in these pages; it means this festival celebrating this deed of this god or goddess who watches over this family in this town." (101 Q Hinduism p 154)
Perhaps as a result of this diversity of belief Hindus tend to be more accepting to rival doctrines and religions than are many other faiths. Theologian and Genesha devotee Satguru Subramuniyaswami explains it this way:
"The Hindu truly believes that there is a single Eternal Path, but he does not believe that any one religion is the only valid religion or the only religion that will lead the soul to salvation. Rather, the Eternal Path is seen reflected in all religions." (Loving Ganesha p xxxvi)
Generally it is believed that there is a specific goal to all of this karmic striving for good. Eventually, if each reincarnation is an improvement from the last, a person can rejoin the Ultimate Reality of pure consciousness before Shiva ends the current cycle of existence. That person's soul will then be bound into the absolute state, freed from the sufferings and illusions of the physical world. Some schools of Hinduism also believe that successive reincarnations into a lower state can eventually accumulate so much bad karma that a persons soul will be reborn into the deepest reaches of a multi-leveled hell, in which they maybe cursed to suffer for all eternity:
"Hell was below the netherworld, a fathomless dark pit reserved for evil-doers, particularly of human birth and was called Naraka. It was furnished, according to the Puranas, with accoutrements of exquisite torture, in a hot hell, a cold hell-altogether seven of them, one above the other." (The Presence of Siva p 403)
Unlike Buddhism, Hinduism teaches that reincarnation is not a negative thing. In fact it is often viewed as necessary for spiritual growth. During Buddhism's rise in ancient India the Hindu theologian Sankharacharya taught:
"For living beings, human birth is hard to gain, then manhood, then holiness; harder is perfection in the path of the law of wisdom; hardest to gain is illumination. Discernment between the Divine Self and the which is not the Self, fully realized union with the Eternal Self, liberation-this is not to be attained without holiness perfected through a hundred myriad lives..." (Reincarnation In World Thought p45)
The idea of God in Hinduism is polytheistic: the belief in multiple gods. But it is much more complex than that. Worship of a single deity is considered equivalent to worship of the Godhead itself. As Subramuniyaswami puts it:
"There are said to be millions of Gods in the Hindu pantheon, although only a few major Deities are actually worshipped in the temples. That God may be worshipped as the Divine Father or the Sainted Mother or the King of kings is one of the blessings of Hinduism. It offers to each a personal and significant contact, and each Hindu will choose that aspect of the Deity which most appeals to his inner needs and sensibilities." (Loving Ganesha p xli)
As Hinduism developed over the centuries, the older theology of the Vedas began to change. Another enormous series of writings called the Upanishads took Hinduism to a form that verges on being nominally monotheistic. Although devotees to a particular deity will evoke his or her name, Hindu theologians maintain that it is really to the Ultimate Reality that they are worshiping.
The Hindu approach to God is well-defined and mystically oriented. It confidently proclaims that every soul is created by God and is destined to return to God; and it provides through its vast cultural and scriptural heritage both the intellectual insight and the pragmatic means for following that path and attaining life's ultimate objective, spiritual realization. (Loving Ganesha p 361)
The Upanishads also gave more emphasis to reincarnation than the somewhat veiled references found in the Vedas. The Katha Upanishad teaches the following:
"The knower is never born nor dies, nor is it from anywhere, nor did it become anyuthing. Unborn, eternal, immemorial, this ancient is not slain when the body is slain... Smaller than small, greater than great, this Self is hidden in the heart of man... Understanding this great lord the Self, bodiless in bodies, stable among unstable, the wise man cannot grieve."
"Know that the Self is the lord of the chariot, the body verily is the chariot; know that the soul is the charioteer, and emotion the reins. They say that the body powers are the horses, and that the external world is the field. When the Self, the bodily powers and emotion are joined together, this is the right enjoyer; thus say the wise. But for the unwise, with emotion ever unrestrained, his bodily powers run away with him, like the unruly horses of the charioteer... He whose charioteer is wisdom, who grasps the reins-emotion-firmly, he indeed gains the end of the path, the supreme resting-place of the emanating Power. . . This is the hidden Self; in all beings it shines no forth; but is perceived by the piercing subtle soul of the subtle-sighted..." (Reincarnation In World Thought p37)
In the Ultimate Reality all the gods were seen to be in a state of divinely perfect union, which was only truly separately when Brahma, as the manifestation the force of creation, spilt his seed into the world. Brahma is Shiva and Shiva is Brahma is a statement that the writers of the Upanishads used to express the ultimate union of all the divine beings in the prolific Hindu pantheon. A new name, Brahmin, grew out of the Upanishad tradition that described a great, overriding godhead. Brahmin is a being only in name. His is perceived as more the personality of the Ultimate Reality, or the manifestation of the Ultimate Reality itself, from which all the beings known as gods derive. In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna, the avatar of Vishnu, puts it this way: "After many births, the man of wisdom worships me, realizing that I am all that is." (Bhagavad Gita p 142) In his commentary Sachindara K. Majumdar explains:
"The height of wisdom, say the Upanishads, is the knowledge that all is Brahman (God)... "I am all that is" means that all is Brahman. The seer sees the manifold universe as a world of forms of the same substance to which we give different names." (Bhadavad Gita p 143)
There is a primal division of this godhead into three main beings. Brahma is the god of creation, the manifestation that spills his seed into the world to begin each cycle of physical existence. But he too is manifested into other beings that play a role in the flow of life in the world.
Vishnu, rarely mentioned in the ancient Vedas, becomes much more important to Hindu theology with the creation of the great religious epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Not only does Vishnu interact with humanity more personally that the other gods, he also incarnates into human form. Orthodox Hindus believe that Vishnu will incarnate ten times during the four ages of each world cycle. Through these physical incarnations Vishnu protects humanity from injustice and harm. Vishnu as Krishna explains in the Bhagavad Gita: "I incarnate myself in every age for saving the good, for the destruction of the wicked and the establishment of religion." (Bhadavad Gita p 104)
William Buck's shortened translation of the five thousand-page Mahabharata contains a concise summation of the Hindu idea of the divine incarnation of Vishnu. "Time is the root and the seed, it gives and it takes away. I bow to God, who lives in this world within us; whoever calls Him by any name, by that name does He come. Therefore take care with the names of God." (Mahabharata, p. 244)
Yama, the god of death, also assumes human form throughout Hindu scriptures. For example, the story of the golden mongoose tells of an impoverished family who, in the midst of a terrible famine, are visited by a stranger. Faced with the choice of their own wellbeing or the wellbeing of their guest, they decide to first feed the stranger. The stranger responds:"I have stopped at every house where there was food. Only you were kind; no one else gave me anything. The rain has this moment begun in the south. But do you know who walks like me over the land when there is no food?"
"Yes, Lord," says the father. "We know you now."
"Hunger destroys wisdom and defeats courage," said Yama, "but you have overpowered him. Here is a car (chariot) from Brahma; you will honor me by going to him as you deserve."
A chariot from the very highest, unchanging, limitless heaven came down from the sky, drawn by white swans and cranes that flew in a flower harness. It scented the air with a fresh heavenly fragrance I cannot name, and the family that had seemed so poor to me left in it, and the dark stranger disappeared before my eyes." (Mahabharata, p. 231)
Shiva, the unsuccessful protector of the Ultimate Reality and ultimate destroyer of the world is often described as the god with a thousand names. He can both bring disease and take it away from humanity. He can rain down the destructive power of storms but also bless the land with fertility and redemption. Shiva will also war against the forces of evil to protect humanity. He is often represented as the Lord of the Dance, a multi-armed creature with a halo of flame who tramples upon the demon of ignorance. Shiva is believed to have once intervened to save all of humanity from destruction. According to Hindu cosmology, when Brahma initially created the world there was no death. Living beings reproduced unchecked to the point an immanent catastrophe:"Everyone was immortal. Earth could bear no more weight. Brahma heard her cries and began to think about the total destruction of his creatures. But he said, "I can find no way out!" Ever there were more and more people living on Earth. And in his anger Brahma filled the heaven, the sky and the Earth all with fire.
"Ah!" thought Brahma. "This is the way."
But Shiva fell at Brahma's feet and said, "Be merciful, what you have made, do not destroy." (Mahabarhata, p. 191)
Spared from destruction by Shiva's pleading, Brahma decides to make all living things mortal. Shiva is important to the Hindu cosmological idea that creation goes through an endless cycle of four great ages of time. We are believed to currently be in the third era. Each time period is characterized by an increasingly corrupt and flawed social world. Eventually the last era will be ended when Shiva opens his third eye, ushering in the next great cycle. This somewhat fatalistic worldview is expressed with a sense of hope in the Ramayana:
"In the first age of the world men crossed the ocean of existence by their spirit alone. In the second age sacrifice and ritual began, and then Rama lived, and by giving their every act to him men lived well their ways. Now in our age what is there to do but worship Rama's feet? But my friend, the last age of this world shall be the best. For then no act has any worth, all is useless... except to say Rama. The future will read this. Therefore I tell them, when all is in ruin around you, just say Rama." (Ramayana, p. 420)
The pantheon of Hindu gods includes lesser deities that live in the lower reaches of Heaven and on earth. It is important to establish a respectful relationship with these local deities. We can see a typical expression of this belief in a ritual that the heroes of the Ramayana performed before entering a new house in a forest:
"As soon as he finished the house Lakshmana killed a black deer and dressed it and threw it into a fire. When it was hot and well-done Rama took the meat and set it out along with grass and water for an offering to the hill spirits. Then a household god came to live in their home filling it with gladness and warding away wrong. Only then did Rama and Sita enter the house." (Ramayana, p. 101)
Believers worship and give thanks to the different manifestations of these chief gods, always hoping for divine deliverance from suffering. If, for example, a Hindu couple wish to have a child, they might give offerings to Shiva or a goddess representing mother earth. The following is a typical prayer that would be recited in front of a shrine to the god Ganesha, one of the many forms of Shiva:
"Aum. O Lord dressed in splendid white, pervading all the universe, shining radiantly like the ivory rays of the full moon, having four mighty shoulders and a charming, happy face. We meditate on you, Lord, that all obstacles may be quelled." (Loving Ganesha p 229)
Each Hindu is believed to have a personal deity specifically assigned to them throughout their lifetime, somewhat akin to the Christian idea of a guardian angel:
"Each Hindu has his or her own guardian devas who are never far away, always available and willing to assist from an inner world of consciousness, from the Second World, or astral plane. These guardian devas attend Hindus from the time of birth of from a previous birth or from a ceremony for event occurring anytime in life when he or she enters the great tribe known as the Hindu religion." (Loving Ganesha p 363)
But it should be noted that these supernatural beings are not forever fixed. They too can spiritually develop over time:
"The devas of the Second World-which is the world of astral or mental bodies-will respond because their function, their fulfillment and dharma on their plane on consciousness is to help evolution in the First World, physical plane, and thereby further evolve themselves." (Loving Ganesha p 365)
The gods of Hinduism are intimately grouped into different deity types. Although all are said to ultimately issue forth from the Absolute Reality, certain gods are considered to be more directly associated with each other. Shiva, for instance, has many different personalities. In the ancient Vedas Shiva is known as Rudra. Another form, one that will come with the destruction of the world, is Kala.
"Kala is the dark mode of Siva. Kala means "time," "death," and "black." It is equivalent to tamas, the dark tendency of disintegration, of which Shiva is the lord. As Kala he swallows everything with the quality of darkness." (The Presence of Siva p 277)
Kala means death to the body, to individual existence. Siva, the Great God in transcendency, made and impelled Kala, made him, in manifestation, share his entire domain, to unfold his innumberable illusions, while he from whom this world revolves is beyond the other than time. Timelessness is an attribute that "defines" the Uncreate. (The Presence of Siva p 276)
The Ramayana and the Mahabarata are the two most beloved and treasured epic stories in Hinduism. Take the following statements by Gandhi about the a section of the Mahabarata called the Bhagavad-Gita for example:
"When disappointments stare me in the face," wrote Gandhi, "and when I see not one ray of light. . . I turn to the Bhagavad-Gita. . . and I immediately began to smile in the midst of overwhelming sorrow. My life has been full of external triangles and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it to the teachings of The Bhagavad-Gita." (Reincarnation In World Thought p39)
The 25,000 verse epic the Ramayana tells the story of the avatar of the God Vishnu and his great battle between good and evil. It is an important work often recited throughout the Hindu world and is well worth a short retelling here. The story begins with the demon lord Ravana receiving a special power that made him invincible to the gods. He exploited this power by waging a terrible war against the gods, cruelly wrecking havoc in the heavens. So unbearable became life in the heavenly worlds that the lesser gods plead to the mighty Vishnu to save them. Although the demon Ravana was impervious to the gods themselves, his power did not protect him from mere mortals. Vishnu accepts the pleas of the other gods and descends into the world to be incarnated into the son of the king the mighty city-state of Ayodhya in Northern India. Vishnu's beloved goddess Lakshmi also incarnates into a beautiful female named Sita to become Rama's wife during his human life on earth.
Rama grew up with his three brothers, all of whom had a part of Vishnu's incarnation within them. Together they were taught the skills of warfare and sports and were educated in politics, economics, arts and the holy scriptures. (Ramayana RP p 21) Seeing into the future, the great god Brahma created a supernatural race of monkeys to dwell in the southern forest of India. The greatest of these was named Hanuman, a red faced white monkey born from the Wind god. Great bears were also created to one day befriend and join Rama in his struggle against the evil Ravana.
At the young age of sixteen Rama, who is still unaware of his divine status, receives his first test against the forces of evil. A female demon had been ruthlessly hunting and eating the terrified ascetics in a nearby forest. Rama and his faithful brother Lakshmana go to the forest with the aid of a wise sage and do battle with the demon. At first young Rama tries to avoid killing the demon because she is in female form, but her attacks become increasingly fierce and dangerous. Rama finally slays the demon with a well-placed arrow from his powerful bow.
Journeying to a nearby city, the two brothers are told of a great bow that belonged to the god Shiva. So large and heavy is the bow that no one had been able to even lift it. The King of the city declares that only a man mighty enough to string the bow will be worthy of receiving the hand of his daughter in marriage. Not surprisingly, young Rama is able to string the mighty bow and fire it, sending out shock waves into the astonished crowd. Rama and Sita marry in a great ceremony. Vishnu and Lakshmi are therefore able to share another life together.
As the heir of the kingdom, Rama was being prepared to assume the throne of Ayodhya. But all is not well. One of the wives of the King is owed an undeniable request, and she asks for the unthinkable. She demands that Rama is banished from the kingdom for fourteen years and her son put on the throne in his place. Grief stricken, the King feels he has no choice but to accept the tragic demand, and the city of Ayodhya is put in a uproar. But Rama, accepting the need of honor being kept, restrains those from trying to kill the new king and humbly sets out to the forest to live out the fourteen year exile with Sita and his brother Lakshmana.
But the worse is yet to come. While living in the forest Sita is abducted by the evil lord Ravana and spirited away to his great fortress on the island of Sri Lanka. While she is being kidnapped Sita is able to drop her jewels to the ground in a desperate attempt to leave a trail for her husband. The jewels fall at the feet of a group of monkeys, one of whom is the mighty Hanuman.
Searching for Sita, Rama and Lakshmana meet the monkeys and help them recover their lost kingdom. In thanks Hanuman reveals the fallen jewels to Rama and vows to help him recover his wife. Search parties travel to the four corners of the world, finally locating Sita in Ravana's hidden island fortress. Joined by an army of bears, Rama and his monkey allies construct a magical bridge of stone across the sea to the island and lay siege to the fortress. In terrible battles, the armies of the demon lord are finally defeated and Sita is rescued.
Returned to Ayodhya after the exile, the illegitimate king voluntarily hands over the throne to Rama. Rama forgives the man and his mother for their crimes. But tragedy is still to come. Rumors persist that while in the custody of the charismatic and lustful Ravana Sita had dishonored her vow of faithfulness to Rama. Rama publicly allows Sita to be released from her marriage vows to him if this is true. Insulted and dismayed at the accusations, she orders that a fire be prepared to test here faithfulness. Sita walks into the fire, but is protected from harm by the Fire god.
Angered at Rama's treatment of Sita, the gods descend to earth to chastise him. They tell the crowd that Sita had always been faithful to Rama. Rama, knowing this to be true beforehand, tells them that the trial was necessary to remove any doubt from those in his kingdom. Honor had now been restored, and the kingdom could now live in perfect peace and harmony.
While the story ends here in many tellings, another book was added to the epic in later years. In this version rumors persist about Sita's infidelity while under the control of Ravana, despite her passing the trial by fire. So widespread and accepted are the rumors that the honor of the kingdom becomes threatened. Despite the fact that Rama knows Sita is innocent of the charges, he has her removed to a forest to live in exile. Accepting the exile for the good of the kingdom, Sita secretly bears Rama two sons and raises them in the forest. A sage teaches them the story of the Ramayana. Journeying to Ayodhya, the two boys one day recite the story in front of Rama. Rama, moved by their words, declares that Sita's exile is over and demands that the city accept her as having always been a faithful wife.
But Sita knows that the people won't believe she had been chaste while under Ravana's control. She asks that if she has always been faithful to Rama, the Earth goddess would appear and take her away. The goddess appears and takes Sita to live inside the earth. The two live the rest of their mortal lives apart in grief. Finally, many years later, the god of Death comes for Rama, and the two are again reunited in heaven in their divine forms.
Many themes pervade the Ramayana. The most apparent is the belief that the gods of the Hindu pantheon intimately interact with human beings. Another is the belief that two souls who fall in love in one life will be reunited in succeeding reincarnated lifetimes. Another is that duty to society should be given priority over a person's individual happiness, even over his or hers own freedom. (Ramayana RP 9) The Ramayana gives us a detailed description of death. A body of a man named Dasaratha is burned in a fire:
"That burning freed Dasaraths's spirit. It let him come out from Yama's shadowy land and get from the Moon his heavenly body, and in celestial robes take his rightful place in heaven." (Ramayana WB p 116)
It is believed that reading or hearing the Ramayana will bring protection from the gods. In fact just reciting the name Rama is used as a type of prayer, imparting to the speaker a sense of peace and wellbeing. "Rama" was in fact the last word spoken by Mohandas Gandhi, the most internationally famous and respected Hindu of the modern world, as he lay dying from an assassin's bullet.
Some schools of Hinduism have incorporated other religions into their beliefs. Buddha is believed by many Hindus to be one of the incarnations of Vishnu and is greatly revered. Jesus Christ is also believed by some Hindus to have been an incarnation of Vishnu. But most Hindus reject the notion that the God of Israel, Jesus or Allah are the same beings as the gods of their pantheon.
A famous mantra chanted by Hindus to help evoke a spiritual state is the Aum. This word is spoken in three parts. The "a" sound is meant to represent the waking state. This sound is made for two seconds and should make the speaker aware of the solar plexus and chest. The "u" sound represents a dreamlike stare. This sound is made also made for two seconds and should make the speaker aware of the throat. The ending "m" sound is meant to represent sleep itself. This sound is made a little longer, about 3 seconds, and should make the speaker aware of the top of his or her head. Each repetition is followed by two seconds of silence, which is meant to represent eternal peace. (Loving Ganesha p 167)
There are today four principle sects in Hinduism, divided between the particular deity they emphasize. The first three worship Shiva, Vishnu and the mother goddess. The forth sect simply allows the individual to choose which deity they will worship. (Loving Ganesha p 518) The followers of Vishnu perceive his personality to be the one from which the Godhead of the Absolute Reality derives.
"Lord Visnu is worshipped by devotional service only, and if anyone has to continue prison life in the material world, he may ask for relative facilities for temporary relief from the different demigods like Siva, Braham, Indra and Varuna. No demigod, however, can release the imprisoned living being from the conditioned life of material existence. This can be done only by Visnu. Therefore, the ultimate benefit may be derived from Visnu, the Personality of Godhead." (Srimad Bhagavatam p 124)
Worshippers of Shiva tend to hold the same view, except that they perceive Shiva to be the overriding personality of the Godhead.
To sum up, Hindus view God has having several different layers or realities. The Ultimate Reality is the great spiritual basis of all things. Brahmin is the manifestation of this Greater Reality, the Godhead who encompasses, creates and rules the entire world. Below the Godhead are three major gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, each with a specific role to play in humanity's relationship with the world. Each of these gods have many other manifestations and forms, each with their own separate role. A vast array of lesser deities act to control the world and help to form personal relationships between human beings and the Divine. Life is ultimately seen as an attempt to increase one's karma through moral behavior and obeying the teachings of the gods, as passed down to us in the Vedas and their subsequent interpretations. By reincarnating into greater and greater forms, humans can one day achieve a divine union with the Ultimate Reality and escape the endless cycles of creation.
Problems with Hindu Inerrancy
Do the Hindu scriptures demand that we take them as the inerrant Word of God true in every doctrine, or is it more reasonable to view the religion as a combination of the Word of God and the words of fallible human beings? Hinduism is full of moral and noble teachings that can lay claim to being divine. There are also metaphysical beliefs that seem impossible to prove or disprove that can also lay claim to being potential divine truths. But there are other beliefs in Hinduism that put the idea of inerrancy to the test.
One of the first problems encountered when trying to examine the enormous body of Hindu scriptures is the simple fact that there is so much disagreement in the many different doctrines of Hinduism. Specific beliefs regarding reincarnation, heaven and hell, the gods and their relative powers and positions to name just a few are in frequent disagreement between differing Hindu sects. Subramuniyaswami points out that there is no central authority to officially endorse or refute any Hindu belief. He goes on to say:
"There is no such thing as a heretic in Hinduism, for there is no single right perspective or belief. Doctrine and sadhana (spiritual disciplines) are not considered absolutes, but the means to an absolute end, and they can be tailored to individual needs and natures." (Loving Ganesha p xiv)
Perhaps the first theological question encountered is the claim of reincarnation. As we saw in Part Two, there are many claims put forth to try and prove that this phenomenon is real, but so far there is no air-tight case that would force an unbiased observer to accept the doctrine. Thus, belief in reincarnation must be taken as a matter of faith, and ultimately cannot prove or disprove the inerrancy of Hindu texts.
Another important claim made in the name of the gods of Hinduism is frequent divine intervention. Lets give a famous example and see if there is any independent evidence to support it. In the Ramayana we are told that Rama and his animal allies erected a magical bridge across the sea to the island of Sri Lanka. The words of the Sea god is translated by Buck as follows:
"The monkey Nala who is with you is the son of Viswakarman, and he was born with the imperfection that whatever he throws onto water will float and not sink." The Ocean King smiled. "I will support on my surface any foundation Nala lays down. Oh Rama, as long as you wish, for you I will be bound by a bridge... " Ramayana WB p 275)
The details of how long the bridge was is also detailed:
"On the first day Nala built his bridge out for fourteen leagues over the sea. The second day he built twenty leagues more, on the third day he added twenty-one leagues, one the fourth day twenty-two, and the fifth day he built twenty-three leagues more onto all he had done already and the bridge touched Lanka Island." (Ramayana WB p 282)
The army of monkeys and bears crosses the sea and successfully does battle in Sri Lanka. Another miraculous event is described later when a giant chariot is sent by the gods to transports the twenty-three million animals back to Rama's city. (Ramayana p 373)
What are we to make of these fantastic tales? First we must accept that the gods, as described by Hindu theology, allowed Rama and his allies to magically build a bridge out of stone that floated across the sea. Second we must accept that this bridge was build by apparently sentient animals. Third we must accept that an enormous magic chariot transported all of these beings back to Rama's city.
There is today no sunken stone bridge traversing the sea between India and Sri Lanka that might lend physical evidence to the story. There are also no skeletal or artifact remains of a once sentient race of monkeys or bears in India. Since no physical evidence supports this story, believers must simply accept it as a matter of faith.
In looking at the many claims that the god Vishnu incarnating into human form, I would only make this observation. Vishnu is said to incarnate whenever religion becomes tarnished and irreligion prevails. (Bhagavad Gita p 101) But according to orthodox Hindus he only seems to incarnate in India, leaving the rest of the world apparently to suffer in apparent spiritual ignorance. The theologian Majumdar tries to defend this point by simply saying that the Godhead intended other nations to have their own religion. (Bhagavad Gita p 106) I don't think this is a very convincing explanation as to why the gods would chose India to be so highly favored over the rest of the world. It is suspiciously similar to the Jewish claim that the prophets of God only appeared to the people of Israel.
A moral test to viewing Hindu scriptures as the inerrant Word of God lies in the traditional endorsement of the class system. This division of society into four main castes is established in the Bhagavad Gita: "I have originated the four orders according to division of temperament and work." (Bhagavad Gita p 106) Modern India has thankfully attempted to alter this horrible system. Many Hindu theologians, such as Majumdar, declare that the caste system is not actually what the traditional texts intended and call it a travesty. But despite these modern reinterpretations, historically the prejudice and perpetual servitude suffered by the lower classes in Hindu society create a tragic example of a religious belief interfering with the natural human desire to improve the quality of life of themselves and their families.
Some Hindus attempt to claim that their sacred texts accurately revealed modern scientific beliefs thousands of years ago. Consider the following statement:
"When the astrophysicist ponders the expanding and contracting nature of the universe, he is contemplating the Hindu view of existence as the day and night of Brahma, a nonlinear conception of time and space that manifests and then undergoes total absorption in mahapralaya, then manifests again in unending cycles." (Loving Ganesha p 51)
Scientists are coming around to the view that the universe has a heart-beat. . . The cosmos expands and contracts much as a heartbeat does, pumping once every eighty-two billion year, and destroying and bringing to life a succession of universes with each lub-dup, or 'big bang.; We congratulate science on finally beginning to discover its true identity, as an agency for corroborating ancient wisdom. Long before our century, before the Christian era, and even before Homer, the people of India had arrived at a 'big-bang' cosmogony." (Reincarnation In World Thought p24 The New Yorker)
Certainly Hindus can claim that their ancient world cosmology did in fact view the universe as existing in time periods measured in billions of years, as does modern cosmology. As many Hindus are found of pointing out, this is closer to what modern science has come to understand than the view traditionally held by the monotheistic religions of the Middle East. Many extinct religions such as those of the Mayans could have make similar claims. And in fact one of the possible versions of the Big Bang does also include the idea of a perpetual cycling of physical existence in alternating explosions and contractions of all mass and energy.
But none of these ancient Hindu texts actually refer to the gradual expansion and contraction of the universe in the same way that modern astronomers do. The descriptions of Brahma creating the earth and all its life forms is not the same as our understanding of current planet formation and natural evolution. So while Hindus can claim some degree of possible foresight into our modern understanding of cosmology, they can't claim to have discovered detailed knowledge about the world that would have been inexplicable for them to have deduced. Many Hindu theologians accept that some contradictions exist in Hindu traditions. Consider this discourse about the timeline in which Ganesha is created:
"The sequence of events in Siva's married life varies according to different traditions. Thus, Ganesa is said to have been born before or after the dirth of karttikeya. On the other hand, the Adi episode took place before the birth of Karttikeya, and Andhaka was impaled by Siva after the birth of Kittikeya. Adi, however, is said to have been Andhaka's son, who meant to avenge his father's death on Siva. Each of the several myths is valid in its own right. They are strung together like manifold beads on a chain, some of more recent make, some ancient. Their colors and shapes may be gathered in one sequence or another, and enhance the figure for whose sake they have been assembled." (The Presence of Siva p 386)
The Vedas themselves are the only works in Hinduism that are typically considered to be inerrant to most Hindus. The sage Bhattacarya is said to have puts it this way:
"The authority of the Vedas is unchallengeable and stands without any question of doubt. And whatever is stated in the Vedas must be accepted completely, otherwise one challenges the authority of the Vedas." (Srimad Bhagavatam p 21)
"The Vedic injunctions are self-authorized, and if some mundane creature adjusts the interpretations of the Vedas, he defies their authority. (Srimad Bhagavatam p 21)
Pradhupada echoes this sentiment:
"The idea is that one cannot set his imperfect reason above the authority of the Vedas. The orders of the Vedas must be obeyed as they stand, without any mundane reasoning." (Srimad Bhagavatam p 21)
A quite sexist view is stated by Pradhupada concerning the ability of women to understand the Vedas:
"The Vedic mantras are too difficult for an ordinary man. Woman, sudras and the so-called twice-born higher castes are unable to penetrate into the sense of the Vedas. And thus the Mahabharata as well as the Puranas are made easy to explain the truths of the Vedas." (Srimad Bhagavatam p 22)
The volumes of prayers and rituals prescribed in the Vedas don't lend themselves to proof or falsification. The descriptions of the great host of deities also are of a metaphysical nature that, several thousand years later, seem hopelessly immune to any form of either validation or disproof.
One noticeable similarity between Western religion and Hinduism is the current battle between the ancient orthodox view of the world and the current naturalistic view of science. Pradhupada for example denounces the very basis of materialist philosophy:
"Conditioned souls, beginning from Brahma, who engineers the entire universe, down to the insignificant ant, are all creating, but none of them are independent of the Supreme Lord. The materialist wrongly thinks that there is no creator other than his own self. This is called maya, or illusion. Because of a poor fund of knowledge, the materialist cannot see beyond the purview of his imperfect senses, and thus he thinks that matter automatically takes its own shape without the aid of a superior intelligence." (Srimad Bhagavatam p 48)
Pradhupada also believes that materialists can't live a happy life:
"There is no point in arguing that a materialistic man can be happy. No materialistic creature-be he the great Brahma or an insignificant ant-can be happy. Everyone tries to make a permanent plan for happiness, but everyone is baffled by the laws of material nature. Therefore the materialistic world is called the darkest region of God's creation." (Srimad Bhagavatam p 91)
Millions of people living in both the West and in India today who hold a largely naturalistic worldview would no doubt disagree. Pradhupada also has much to say about Buddhism. To him the Buddha was actually working in the same religious tradition as were the prophets of ancient Hinduism. Here is what he had to say about the Buddha's lake of faith in the intervention of a personal god:
"Technically Lords Buddha's philosophy is called atheistic because there is no acceptance of the Supreme Lord and because that system of philosophy denied the authority of the Vedas. But that is an act of camouflage by the Lord. Lord Buddha is the incarnation of Godhead. As such, he is the original propounder of Vedic knowledge. He therefore cannot reject Vedic philosophy. But he rejected it outwardly because of sura-dvisa, or the demons who are always envious of the devotees of Godhead, try to support cow killing or animal killing from the pages of the Vedas, and this is now being done by the modernizing sannyasis." (Srimad Bhagavatam p 170)
In other words, he believes that Buddha had to falsely reject the ideas of Vedic authority and a personal God in order to teach people to stop killing animals. He says "The animal sacrifice as stated in the Vedas is different from the unrestricted animal killing in the slaughterhouse." (Srimad Bhagavatam p 170) And also: "Lord Buddha preached the preliminary principles of the Vedas in a manner suitable for the time being. . . "(Srimad Bhagavatam p 171) Buddhism has recently had a resurgence in India because of the mass conversions of many of India untouchable class. Only time will tell if the movement will continue.
In any case there seems little justification for Hindus demanding belief that their scriptures are the inerrant Word of God. Contradictions between different sects prevent any group of writings from being held up as "the truth" on even such central doctrines as reincarnation and the divisions of the gods. The different creation stories contained within competing writings also do not conform to our modern scientific understanding of the formation of the world. The various doctrines of the gods and reincarnation must ultimately be accepted or rejected as a matter of faith.
While Hindus cannot prove that their faith is the ultimate truth about God and reality, no one has been able to disprove that it is not. Hinduism is a powerful religion, proving its ability to fulfill the spiritual lives of the people of India despite devastating invasions by foreign powers. The Hindu faith was able to resist attempts by both Muslims and Christians to destroy their religion, a feat few other religions in history can make. Modern Hinduism continues to provide the people of India and may other communities with a passionate interaction between humanity and the Divine. Legal reforms in India have worked hard to eliminate the inequality caused by the ancient caste system. India today can lay the claim of being the world's largest democracy, successfully combining their religious traditions with the changing realities of the modern world.