Hinduism, one of the oldest religions of the world, is a vast religion with multiple facets. In fact it is said that it is not really a religion, but ‘Sanatana Dharma‘ — the eternal, righteous way. For the less-informed, Hinduism may look too confusing, too complicated to understand and too contradictory in its percepts and practices. Even many Hindus do not know the exalted philosophies of the religion. Through this article, we shall see some of the central tenets of Hinduism.
(1) God is One, but is amenable for worship in multiple forms:
Hinduism permits worship of multiple Gods who are endowed with different looks, powers and attributes; they, in reality, represent the One God, known as Brahman, Parabrahman, Paramatman or Satchidananda. Hinduism acknowledges that there are basic differences in every person in tastes, temperaments and capacity of intake in the matter of religion. In real life, a woman found distasteful to one man can be the soul stirring sweet-heart of another man. When such a difference is taste can exist, why not allow different tastes in worshiping the God?This is precisely the logic behind the idea of multiple God forms in Hinduism.
Thus, Hinduism permits you to choose a specific God form most appealing and lovable to you; it encourages you to believe whole heartedly that that particular God form indeed is the one supreme God. A chaste woman considers her husband alone to be the most handsome and most wonderful person; likewise, at the lower steps of religion, a believer’s conviction that his personal God alone to be the most powerful and the “only true God” is also encouraged.
(2) The Three Major God Forms – (Tri Murti)– Brahma -Vishnu -Shiva (Creator -Protector- Destroyer) – and the 6 Sects of worship of God
According to Hindu Puranas (Mythological stories), God does creation, protection and destruction of this universe in one after the other, repeating again and again in a cycle. As a Creator, He is Brahma; as a Protector, He is Vishnu; as a Destroyer, he is Shiva.
However, there are other God forms also popularly worshiped and sects are existing in Hinduism, where specific God forms as the prime deity are worshiped.
Brahma as an individual God is not separately worshiped in Hindu tradition. There is no sect or tradition where Brahma is woshiped as God with exclusive temples for Him.
In this way, six major sects of worshipers of different God forms exist in Hinduism and the sects are:
i) Saivam: The sect whose prime God of worship is lord Shiva.
ii) Vaishnavam: The sect whose prime God of worship is lord Vishnu.
iii) Shaktam: The sect whose personal God of worship is Shakti, the Universal Mother.
iv) Ganapathyam: The sect whose personal God of worship is Ganapathi (or Vinayaka).
v) Koumaram: The sect whose personal God of worship is Karthikeya (or Subramanya or Muruga)
(vi) Souryam — for the worshipers of Sun; but this sect is practically non-existent now.
It must be noted that these are not to be considered as rigid compartmentalization of worshipers. There are other Gods too (like Lord Aiyyappa who is considered the son of Shiva-Vishnu) who are worshiped popularly. God’s Avatars too are quite widely worshiped.
For more details on other God Forms worshiped in Hinduism, please refer to the Article: The Various God forms of Hinduism.
Though a fair element of narrow-mindedness and inter-sect bickering about who is really the prime God nevertheless exist, there are plenty of Hindus who worship some or several of these God forms without narrow mindedness. Great saints and sages of Hinduism always guide seekers to understand the unity behind the diversity.
Great religious masters say that as a person matures in his religious progress, he comes out of such narrow convictions. He understands by experience that it is that one supreme lord, who has, by His grace, adopted to come in the form of his personal God and in fact, it is in the same way that He goes about to present Himself in other forms to satisfy other sects of believers. At the ultimate level of experience, the seeker perceives that the whole universe is simply nothing other than God (Brahman) and his individual soul is no different from it.
(3) The concept of Avatar:
Another fundamental belief in Hinduism is that God descends to earth to take birth as Human (or other) forms whenever the good and piety people suffer and the evil ones have an upper hand. God protects the good, destroys the evil and restores dharma (righteousness). Such a divinely person is known as an avatar.
Lord Vishnu is attributed with taking 10 such avatars. Rama, Krishna, Narasimha and other such divine personalities are Vishnu’s Avatars and they are worshipped as various forms Vishnu.
All forms of Vishnu or his avatars can also be worshipped in idols and each of the idols is treated as an “archavatar” — God’s form descended into idol, for the purpose and convenience of worship.Great saints are of the opinion that there is really no restriction to the number of avatars (unlike the Vaishnavaite’s belief about the ten avatars) as the phenomenon of avatar is an on-going process, based on the needs of the time. Based on this line of thinking, some great Hindu masters consider Jesus and Mohammad too as avatars of God.
Lord Vishnu is attributed with taking 10 Avatars, the prime and popular among them are Rama and Krishna.
(3) Karma and rebirth:
Hinduism says that life is not something confined to this birth alone. One’s present birth is the consequence of one’s past actions (Karma) in previous births. Desires and subtle mental leanings (vasanas) drive one into action. Hinduism says that as long as one has unfulfilled desires, one has to take rebirth. Hinduism, accepts the existence of higher world (heaven – “Swarga”) and lower world (hell – “Naraga”).
When a person does some extra-ordinary good things in one’s previous life, he may enjoy the fruits of such actions at the heaven for a while, but he has to come back to the earth again till he depletes all his Karmas. Likewise, Hinduism says those who did extraordinarily bad and horrific deeds in a previous birth have to undergo punishment at the hell and then comeback to earth to deplete the karmas. This is the idea professed in Bhagavad Gita and various Hindu mythologies.
Some Hindu saints explain this concept in a different angle saying that both heaven and hell are in reality existing in this very earth and any out-of-ordinary enjoyment or suffering that some people experience in human life is on account of the out-of normal good or bad deeds done by them in previous births.
Hinduism says human birth is rare to get and the purpose of human birth is to attain God or to realize one’s true Self. Births and deaths are nothing but a long winding path to attain this goal.
Once a true seeker understands this truth and the futility of running behind objects of desires, he renounces all worldly pursuits and surrenders to a Guru for guidance; by the grace of Guru and God, he gets untangled from the cycles of births and deaths and attains salvation.
It’s your past Karma that decides your future birth. Depending on your karmas, we may even end up in a lower birth like an animal, which means the much valuable Human birth (which is rare to get, according to Hindu saints) can be wasted by engaging in acts that degrade us instead of acts that elevates us.
Karma and God’s grace:
Does Hinduism encourage fatalism through the concept of Karma? No. What Hinduism says is that one can not have freedom of choice in facing the repercussions of the past actions, but one does have the free will to choose his present actions. It is quite obvious that only because we have the freedom of choice of action, we have accumulated our past karmas!
What Hinduism says is two-fold. One: The reactions to our past actions are not entirely self-propelling; they are indeed executed by the will of God; the more one surrenders to God and the more one accepts with humility the divine dispensation, the more one gets relief from the impinging effects of Karma.
Two: By carefully choosing one’s present actions based on dharma, by doing acts with a sense of surrender to the supreme and with dispassion, one paves the way for escaping from the evil effects of his present actions in the future.
(5) The concept of Yoga:
Another essential feature of Hinduism is Yoga — meaning Union. The purpose of human birth is to attain this Yoga — union of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul. One of the path for this Yoga is the emotion-laden — the path of love towards God — which is Known as Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion). It is the most suited path for the majority.
The other approach is intellectual — the Path of inquiry — known as Gnyana Yoga (Path of knowledge). In this path, God is perceived to be beyond name and form and the ultimate goal is to realize by experience that the Individual soul and the Supreme soul are one and the same.
Both the paths are not strictly compartmentalized; They can co exist in an earnest aspirant and one path can lead to another. One can be more predominant than the other and one can complement the other.
There are two more yogas — one is the Karma Yoga, the path of selfless work without attachment towards the fruits of action. By Karma yoga, one gets purified and becomes fit for attaining the ultimate. The other is the Raja Yoga — also known as Ashtanga Yoga — the Yoga of eight steps. In this path, one, by practicing austerities and disciplines, engages in meditation and rises up to attain Samadhi (the ultimate state of union with the infinity).
Then we have Kundalini Yoga (in the path of Tantra) wherein by yogic practices one can raise one’s life lying as a coiled serpent in Mooladhara Chakra (a center close to the anus) to the Sahasrara at the top of the head, through various intermediate centers. At Shasrara, The soul merges with God and attain total union.
There is yet another yoga — the Hatha Yoga, which is more concerned with fine-tuning the physical body through yogasanas so that the body becomes the right instrument to attain the yoga. Thus Hatha Yoga is not considered truly as a path of union, but rather a discipline conducive for it.
(6) The three schools of philosophy — Dvaita, Visishtadvaita and Advaita and the concept of Maya:
The relationship of the individual soul (Jivatman) with the Supreme soul or God (Paramatman) has always been an intriguing aspect of Hindu religion from time immemorial, and there have always been differences in perceptions and the experiences of the true seers who have recorded their experiences.
Great religious masters have grasped the concept of God predominantly from three different view points — it is like three different persons looking at a mountain from three different angles and trying to describe its shape from their points of view. It is also professed that these three are really three stages, one leading to another but one not really negating the other. These three philosophies are briefly described below:
(a) Advaita (non-dualism):
Jivatman and paramatman are one and the same. It is because of the play of Maya, the jivatman forgets about its oneness with the Paramatman. The paramatman, also called Brahman is beyond name and form. Brahman is all emcompassing, all pervasive, infinte, beginningless, endless, beyond description by words. It is beyond name and form. Maya, the illusion is the phenomenon which creates duality — the good and bad, the matter and energy, the relative and the absolute, the temporary and the permanent. The existence of the physical world and the multitude of life forms, the lure of sex, the lure of money, materialism — everything is the work of Maya. Everything under maya is ever changing, transient, impermanent and delusive. By negating everything created by maya, a seeker turn inwards and transcending his own ego, he attains oneness with Brahman. Maya is the divine play which is not amenable for grasp to the common intellect.
According to Sri Ramakrishna paramahamsa (19th century) , Brahman and Maya are like the fire and its nature to burn; They are like milk and its whiteness; they are both inseparable. If you think of one, you will think of the other too. Because of this maya, the individual soul wrongly associates itself with the gross body forgetting its real nature; Liberation or Moksha is attained when the individual grasps by personal experience that it is indeed the all pervading and all encompassing Brahman which is hidden behind its own wondrous and self-willed magic of maya.
Advaita is the oldest and the very fundamental philosophy of Hinduism originating from Upanishads. It was evolved as a concept and philosophy by Goudapada (6th Century). Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya (8th Century) was the prime teacher and propagator of Advaita philosophy across the length and breadth of India during his short life span of life (32 years).
(b) Visishtadvaita (Qualified non-dualism):
Like the physical body and soul are two different identities and the existence of the physical body is dependent on the existence of the soul inside it, the Visishtadvaita says that the Pramatman is the soul of the jivatman. Jivatman has no existence without paramatman and in that sense it is a qualified non-dualism. Just like the physical body never getting equated to soul, the jivatman can not be treated same as Paramatman. In Visishtadvaita, Vishnu is the prime God, who is Prabrahman (beyond name and form) as well as Ishwara (God with name and form). Visishtadvaita does not negate creation as illusion but accepts everything existing with name and form as God’s divine expressions. Attaining the abode of God (Vaikuntha) is the goal of human life and the path for it is Saranagathi (total surrender to Lord Vishnu/ Narayana).
Sri Ramanujacharya (11th/12th Century) was the prime teacher and propagator of Visishtadvaita philosophy.
(c) Dvaita (Dualism):
The individual soul or Jivatman is different from the Great soul or God or Paramatman. They are two different identities eternally. The individual soul can realize Paramatman but can not become one with it. The path for it is Bhakti (Devotion). Vishnu is the prime God, the Paramatman.
Sri Madhvacharya (13th/14th century) was the prime teacher and propagator of advaita philosophy.
(7) The significance of source books of Hinduism:
The 4 Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharvana) are the original source books containing the knowledge of Hinduism. They are considered as originating from God, heard and registered by great seers of the yore. Each Veda essentially contains two major parts — the Karma Kandam and the Gyana Kandam. The Karma Kandam deals with procedural rituals and the Gyana Kandam contains the supreme wisdom — the Upanishads (or Vedanta — The culmination of Veda). While the ritualistic parts got diluted considerably over the period of time, the Upanishads, the quintessence of Vedic knowledge lives on and they form the basic source of reference for all the supreme philosophies of Hinduism. They serve as guides for earnest seekers and also as reference books for comparing the experiences attained after practice of the spiritual disciplines.
Other than Upanishads, Brahmasutra (that contains the essence of Upanishads in cryptic aphoristic verses that explains Brahman, the competing theories including upanishads, Buddhism and Jainism, and the ways of spiritual practices. The Bhagavat Gita (the discourse about dharma and karma given by Lord Krishna to his disciple Arjuna at war front) is the third major source book of Hindu philosophy. These three texts are the basic reference sources and are known as Prasthana Tria.
Ramayana (The epic story of Lord Rama) and Mahabharata (the epic story of Pandavas, the five princes) are the two greatest Itihas (stories based on actual historical happenings) of Hinduism that contain the essence of Sanatana Dharma,the right and wrong practices of living, shastras and philosophies explained through stories. Srimad Bhagavatam (the life story of lord Krishna and several other Avatars of God), and other Puranas (like Siva Puranam, Vishnu puranam etc) form the other basic reference books of Hinduism.
It is indeed an uphill task to briefly explain the central tenets of Hinduism. It must be understood that in such a vast and profound religion, there will always be a large gap between what is practiced as religion at the commoner level and what is preached and practiced at the exalted level.
But Hinduism attempts in a wonderful way to elevate every person inclined towards spirituality to a higher level, starting at the level the person already is.