The concept of Avatar in Hinduism

A fundamental belief in Hinduism is that God descends to earth to take birth as human (or other) forms whenever the good and pious people suffer and the evil ones have an upper hand. The word Avatar means descending (to earth). God descends to earth based on the needs of time, protects the good, destroy the evil and restore dharma (righteousness). Such a person/ being is known as an avatar. An Avatar of God takes birth in earth in some form (human form and also other forms) and carry out a specific mission and then return to the heavenly abode.

At the core of Hinduism, God is only one. He is called Brahman in Upanishads. Brahman is beyond name and form, all pervading, all encompassing and all knowing. Everything living and non-living are verily different expressions of Brahman. The entire cosmos is an expression of Brahman. Brahman is smaller than the atom and yet bigger than the cosmos.

Since Brahman encompasses everything, any concept of God with name and form is also within the scope of Brahman only. In Hinduism God with name and form is also real and such a God is known as Ishwara.

Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer) and Shiva (the destroyer) are the three prime forms of God conceived in Hinduism. In Hinduism’s Vaishnava tradition, Vishnu is considered the one and only prime God and he is verily the Brahman. In this tradition, Brahma was created by Vishnu for the purpose of creating the entire universe. In Shaiva tradition, Shiva is considered the one and only prime God and He is verily the Brahman. He is the Supreme Reality; He is the one who creates, sustains and destroys.

We also have Shakta tradition where Divine mother Parashakti is considered the Prime God and she is the one who creates, sustains and destroys.

As per the above concept, the Prime Gods (be it Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti) are NOT really avatars (even though some scriptures call them Gunaavatars (Brahma representing Satva Guna, Vishnu, the Rajo Guna and Shiva, the Tamo Guna). They are eternal Gods, not subjected to birth cycle.

Interestingly,  in the 4 Vedas inclusive of  Vedanta (Upanishads) which are the earliest sources of spiritual scriptures, there is no concept of Avatar being mentioned! The concept of Avatars came into vogue only in later historic periods of Itihas and Puranas (scriptural mythologies).

In Bhagavad Gita, which is part of the Itihas Mahabharata (that is like a Purana containing historical cum mythological story), the concept of God arriving from time to time to protect the righteous people and punish the evil doers gets mentioned. It comes through the statement of Lord Krishna, who is considered the Avatar of Vishnu:

Whenever there is decay of righteousness, O Bharata,
And there is exaltation of unrighteousness, then I Myself come forth ;

For the protection of the good, for the destruction of evil-doers,
For the sake of firmly establishing righteousness, I am born from age to age
.”

                                                                                              –  Bhagavad Gita 4-7&8

Avatars Of Vishnu

In Puranas primarily, Lord Vishnu has been attributed to taking Avatars. His 10 Avatars are considered to be important which are listed below:

(You can click on the respective names to know more details)

1) Matsya  2) Kurma  3) Varaha    4) Narasimha   5) Vamana 6) Parashurama  7) Rama  8) Krishna   9) Balarama  10) Kalki.

Kalki Avatar is yet to happen and is expected to take place in this yuga (Kali Yuga).

However, Srimad Bhagavatam which is one of the most widely accepted Puranas as an important reference book in the matters of Hinduism’s mythologies associated with practical  teaching of devotion, dharmas and philosophies, Vishnu’s avatars are not restricted to 10, but the following 14 more are also included.

(You can click on the respective names to know more details)

11) Sanaka 12) Sananda 13) Sanatana 14) Sanatkumara, 15) Narada, 16) Nara, 17) Narayana 18) Kapila, 19) Dattatreya, 20) Yajna, 21) Rshabha, 22) Prthu, 23)  Mohini, 24) Garuda, 25) Dhanvantri, 26) Vyasa, 27) Buddha

Scope of divine expression in Avatar – Purna, Amsa and Kala

In scriptures it is said that divine/spiritual power (Chaitanya Shakti)  in the various creations gets expressed in different measures. They are expressed in kalas. As per this concept, plants have 2 kalas, animals 2 to3 kalas, human beings 5 to 6 kalas, saints and sages 7 to 8 kalas and so on. Sri Rama Avatar is said to have taken place with 12 kalas. Sri Krishnavatar is hailed as a Purna Avatar  where the highest measure of 16 kalas got expressed through this avatar.

An Amsa Avatar is where a partial divinity gets expressed. Thus Kapila, Kurma, Balarama etc are considered to be Amsa Avatars.

Then there is also a mention of Shaktiavesha Avatar where in God’s ferocious aspect gets expressed in an Avatar that engages in large scale destruction of evil forces. Parashurama Avatar is stated to be such.

Avatars are countless

Srimad Bhagavatam also states that Avatars are countless. Such a statement too is logical considering the fact that Puranas were written thousands of years ago. Naturally, more Avatars coming to earth is quite in order because Avatars, by definition come to earth whenever dharma is in danger and the wicked and evil forces are in the rise. Avatars do come to show the right path of dharma suited to changing times.

Avatara Purushas

Thus in Hinduism, ardent devotees hail several Mahatma’s of later periods as Avatara Purushas. Their lives and teachings too become extremely important as puranas and scriptures. Unlike old puranas and shastras that are in Sanskrit language, the Avatara Purushas give teachings in their local languages and their teachings are far more simpler to comprehend and to put to practice in life because they are in tune with the needs of the time. Invariably, their teachings are totally in resonance with the different aspects of scriptures.

  • Shri Shankaracharya is hailed as an Avatar of Lord Shiva
  • Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is hailed as an Avatar of Radha.
  • Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa is considered a divine Avatar with Devi’s amsa.
  • Shirdi Saibaba is considered an Avatar of God, whose appeal broke the barriers of Hindus and Muslims
  • Sri Satya Saibaba is considered an Avatar of Shiva-Shakti
  • Swami Vivekananda is hailed as an Avatar of Shiva by some of his guru bhais and devotees.
  • Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi – though he is a Purna Jnani (who is beyond the concept of Avatars) , there are some devotees who consider him an Avatar of Lord Subrahmanya.
  • Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) is considered an the Avatar of Devi Parashakti.

One commonly observed feature amidst these Avatara Purushas is that even though they may appear to follow a specific religious path, practice or worship during their evolving stages, their demeanor as realized mahatmas will not get cocooned to any limited school, sect or traditional compartments. Their  appeal and attraction towards earnest devotees will cut across all barriers; their level of spiritual knowledge will be so elevated and all pervading that they would be able to drive away doubts from the minds of different seekers with different tastes, temperaments and affinity to philosophies and concepts. Their appeal is universal. They attract people from other religious faith too.

Most of these Avatara Purushas are in fact swayambus — meaning, they were self-made, born with wisdom (not acquired through the teachings of a guru).

Please Note

It is quite natural in a vast and complicated religion like Hinduism (that has so many facets, tenets and schools) that there will be conflicts and disputes in accepting some great saints who are hailed as Avatara Purushas by one group of devotees, by the followers of other saints or people belonging to different other sects or schools of philosophies.

Instead of breaking our heads about these disputes, it is always better to focus on the core teachings of these great Mahatmas and see whether they are in tune with Sanatana Dharma’s time tested truths given in the various  scriptures and whether they are elevating their respective followers towards the higher goal of life — God realization/ self-realization.

 

Understanding the role and purpose of Guru in Hinduism

The word “guru” in general means a teacher in Sanskrit. In the generic sense any teacher, whether the one who teaches worldly knowledge or the one who teaches spiritual wisdom, is a guru. But normally, from the point of Hindu religion, a guru is one who teaches you spiritual knowledge, who initiates you into a spiritual path or who guides you along the path of a spiritual quest. A highly learned Guru with deep knowledge of the scriptures is also called an Acharya.

Great spiritual masters of Hinduism are of the firm opinion that the human birth is rare and the purpose of the human birth is to attain God or realize one’s atman, which are one and the same, viewed from two different perspectives.

This is the ultimate goal to be attained and it is varyingly termed as God realization, self-realization, attaining the knowledge of Brahman, attaining birthlessness/deathlessness (“Moksha” “Mukthi” “samadhi” “nirvana” “sakshatkar,” etc. in Sanskrit).

Hinduism emphatically states that a guru is a must for learning and experiencing spirituals truths.

The following points will help you to understand the role of a guru in Hinduism.

“Satguru” – The guru of the highest order

Purely from the spiritual point of view, worldly knowledge is considered a lower level of knowledge and even such a “lower” knowledge requires teachers to make students comprehend the subjects clearly. Obviously, the ultimate spiritual knowledge, which is the very goal of life to be attained, requires qualified spiritual masters to teach and guide the earnest spiritual seekers.

Ideally, only a God-realized (or self-realized) soul, who is truly a knower by personal experience, could be the perfect guru. Such a guru is called a “Satguru.” A Satguru is none other than God himself descended in human form or a human who has attained the highest level of spiritual knowledge – who has “obtained” the divine authority to transmit his knowledge to the earnest seekers who surrender to him. According to Sri Ramakrishna, a great religious master, a Satguru is like a huge steamer that can safely carry a lot of people across a turbulent river.

Hinduism advocates the concept of “Avatar” – God descending to earth in human form from time to time to establish righteousness in the world, to satisfy the longing of earnest worshipers and to provide appropriate spiritual guidance to people in a way most suited to the period and circumstances of the descent.

The Avatar and his immediate and handpicked lieutenants who fully imbibe his teachings, who are empowered to carry forward his teachings function as Satgurus. However, it need not be interpreted to mean that Satgurus are always associated with the arrival of avatars.

Multiple gurus may also guide at different levels

But practically, not all spiritual seekers are really keen enough to reach the ultimate goal or fit enough to reach it. But spiritual attainment being the goal of human life, people at different levels of spiritual inclination have to be guided to the path at varying degrees of “capacity of intake” and “capacity of assimilation.”

Reincarnation (rebirth after death) is one of the fundamental concepts of faith in Hinduism. Accordingly, Hinduism recognizes that it may take several births for a seeker to attain the ultimate goal. Bhagavat Gita, one of the greatest books of essential Hindu spiritual knowledge recognizes this fact by stating that hardly one in a thousand strives to attain the highest and even among such earnest seekers, hardly a few are capable of reaching the goal.

It also leads to the fact that availability of Satgurus at all points of time and at all approachable geographic locations may not be practical. Naturally, people need to be guided by “less than perfect” masters who are quite good enough to guide the majority.

Hinduism is a very vast religion with scope for worshiping innumerable God-forms (who represent the ONE ultimate truth). There exist several major schools of philosophies, several sects and sub-sects that are suited to various tastes, traditions and preferences of religious followers. This naturally leads to a multifaceted system of availability of gurus.

The best starting point for seeking the guidance of a guru is to follow the culture and tradition of the family and in Hinduism, the traditional “family guru” serves this purpose. Generally, a “family guru” is a guru, most normally (but not too strictly) a “Sanyasi” (a monk who has relinquished worldly life) who comes in the Master-disciple lineage of a Satguru or a great spiritual master of yesteryears. These gurus are adept in the particular God they worship and the particular school of philosophy they profess. They initiate the seeker in the worship of the specific “personal God” of their sect and guide him in the fundamentals of religious disciplines to follow.

To avoid distraction and to ensure a better focus for an orderly religious progress, it is normally recommended that the seeker remains steadfast in his trust towards his guru, to the chosen personal God and to the school of philosophy he is instructed about.

But for a more curious and capable seeker, such guidelines are not too binding. Hinduism allows the freedom for one to choose his guru based on his temperament, taste and inclination. Hinduism also permits an earnest seeker to seek “higher guidance” from more than one guru based on his true progress. All the same, it is also emphasized that one should not be running behind one guru after another just because of one’s egotism that refuses to surrender to any form of discipline.

While it is important that one remains ever-devoted to his main guru, one can approach other gurus (called ‘upa gurus’ – i.e. supportive gurus) with due reverence and get specific guidance in some specific techniques of spiritual practice, to learn about alternative schools of philosophies or religious scriptures, to get doubts clarified and get advice on any hurdles faced in the path of progress.

At an exalted level, for the most avid seeker, even animals, birds and inanimate objects can teach a lesson or two in his spiritual quest (which he grasps by keen observation) and all of them are virtually his upa-gurus.

Faith and surrender to the guru are essential

Surrendering unquestioningly to one guru and attaining progress based on this very surrender and trust – this is on one side. Questioning and evaluating a guru and then surrendering to him and, at the same time, providing room for the guru to evaluate him so as to accept or reject him – this is on another side. Both are acceptable in Hinduism.

However, where the disciple is lucky enough (or destined) to end up or surrender at the feet of a Satguru, the Satguru, who transcends names, forms and schools of philosophies, will guide the disciple to the most appropriate “personal god” and school of philosophy best suited to him. What the disciple needs to do afterwards is to surrender his ego at the feet of his guru and remain steadfast in his faith, goal and commitment. It is also said that, in reality, it is the guru who seeks and gets the disciple. An earnest seeker may ultimately end up with a Satguru, though he may have had his initiation earlier from another guru.

Understanding initiation (“Diksha”) by a guru

Getting initiation (“Diksha”) from the guru is an essential element of the guru-disciple relationship. In general, “Diksha” is done by the guru by giving a mantra (a sacred phrase containing the name of a specific God beginning with “seed sounds” like “Om” and ending with “namah”). Gurus of a specific sect give a mantra suited to the specific sect.

For example, worshipers of Lord Shiva generally give a mantra associated with Lord Shiva. A worshiper of Vishnu will normally get initiated with Narayana mantra (or Krishna / Rama mantras).

Even though we are familiar with several mantras like Om Namah Shivaya or Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya etc, Mantras are normally communicated in secrecy by the Guru to the disciple. A disciple is expected to keep his mantra a secret and not to reveal it to any other person.

According to Satguru Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma), a sadguru while initiating a disciple with a mantra, transmits a little of his Prana shakti (vital force). It is like adding a little butter milk to milk to create curd. Chanting of mantra subsequently by the disciple is like churning the curd to obtain butter (realizing God).

A mantra is like a seed sown by the guru into the disciple. It is up to the disciple to nurture the seed to get the sapling, water it and protect it as it grows to a tree till it bears fruits. Likewise, it is the sacred duty of the disciple to repeat the mantra with devotion as many times as possible, follow the disciplines and practices specified by the guru, meditate on the God of the mantra and reap the spiritual benefits.

As for Satgurus, their way of initiation (by giving ‘diksha’ to someone) may take place in several forms. A Satguru is capable of gauging the spiritual capacity, taste and capability of a person and make an initiation best suited to the person. The initiation could be done by a Satguru by a mere touch of hand (“Hasta Diksha”); he may give the mantra in the disciple’s dreams (“Swapna Diksha”); he may initiate the disciple by a mere eye-to-eye contact (“Nayana Diksha”); he may initiate by an embrace (“Alingana Diksha”).

A Satguru is capable of judging which God form is best suited or best liked by the disciple and initiate him with the mantra of that God. He may initiate the disciple in worship of God with form or without form; he may simply initiate a capable follower in the path of self-inquiry.

A Satguru bears the burden of a disciple

Unlike a guru whose responsibility ends with initiating the disciple in the religious path, a Satguru bears the responsibility of the disciple who surrenders to him wholeheartedly. It is said that at the time of giving Diksha, a Satguru transmits a small portion of his vital energy (“Prana”) into the disciple. It is also said that the Satguru absorbs the accumulated karmas (good and bad effects of the disciples’ actions in the past) and makes him a “clean slate” to start his religious quest with full vigor. While the need for “self-effort” to be done by the disciple to attain the ultimate goal can’t be wished away, the Satguru makes the path much easier for the disciple to tread, by removing the obstacles coming out of his past deeds.

It is also said that a Satguru never forsakes his disciple, even if he tends to slacken his spiritual efforts or gets distracted away from his ideal; Satguru’s watchful eyes are always on him to goad him back to his track at the appropriate time.

The guidance from the “inner Guru”

Any religious discipline done by an earnest seeker is to realize God or Atman or Brahman who essentially dwells in the heart of every being. In the point of view of “Gyana marga” (path of Knowledge in Hinduism), everyone is essentially God and what the guru does is to remove the false coverings and sheaths that make one wrongly identify oneself with the body, mind intellect, etc. and ultimately to make one understand “you are that” (“Tatwamasi”).

It may not be practical for everyone to be physically with the guru always, take regular instructions from him and keep getting doubts cleared. It is said that an earnest disciple who lives away from a guru/Satguru, depending on his steadfastness and sincerity in his spiritual efforts, gets his guidance and course-correction right from his inner heart/sub-conscience. This inner voice or guidance is called the Inner Guru (“Anthra Guru”).

Sri Ramana Maharishi, the great sage of Tiruvennamalai used to say that the external guru pushes the disciple’s mental leanings (which tend to wander outwards) towards inside and the Indwelling Guru drags them inwards. It is ultimately the one and the same “Sachidananda” (Existence-knowledge-bliss i.e. Godliness) that works through both as the external guru and the internal guru.

What Swami Sivananda says about the need of a Guru

(Source: Autobiography of Swami Sivananda)

“The spiritual path is beset with many obstacles. The Guru will guide the aspirants safely and remove all sorts of difficulties they have to face. He will inspire the students and give them spiritual powers through his blessings. Guru, Isvara, Truth and Mantra are one. There is no other way of overcoming the vicious worldly Samskaras of the passionate nature of raw, worldly-minded persons than personal contact with and service to the Guru.

A personal Guru is necessary in the beginning. He alone can show you the path to attain God, who is the Guru of Gurus, and obviate the snares and pitfalls on your path. Guru’s Grace is needed by the disciple. This does not mean that the disciple should sit idle and expect a miracle from the Guru to push him directly into Samadhi. The Guru cannot do Sadhana for the student. It is foolish to expect spiritual attainments from a drop of Kamandalu water from the Guru. The Guru can guide the student, clear his doubts, pave the way, remove the snares, pitfalls and obstacles and throw light on the path. But it is the disciple himself who has to walk every step in the spiritual path.”

 

Understanding the Concept of Karma and Rebirth in Hinduism

The concepts of Karma and rebirth are two major pillars of Hindu philosophy. Buddhism and Jainism, the two other religions which have their origins in Hinduism too accept the concepts of Karma and rebirth.

What is Karma?

Karma means work or action. When you perform a work or action, it is bound to produce an effect, a reaction or a result. If you are the doer of karma with a desire, you are to own up the result or the fruit it produces. Whatever actions we did in our previous births, earlier in the present birth, are currently doing, are going to do later in this birth and also in future births are all Karmas. Karmas can be good, neutral or bad. Good karma will get you good effects and bad karma will get you bad consequences. This is the simplistic explanation of the law of Karma, but it is not really as simple as that!

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” — says the science. “Thou shall reap what thy sow” says the English proverb. These two statements are at the best only incomplete approximations to the law of Karma. Nevertheless, action and reaction constitute the first dimension of Karma.

Karma — inter-woven with time and God’s will

Karma and fruits of Karma are interwoven with a second dimension — Time and a third dimension — Divine will. This is the crux of the law of Karma of Hinduism. This fact is not well grasped by many.

What baffles and troubles many people in life is a commonly perceived reality that nice and honest people of good conduct and character seem to suffer more in life,whereas those not endowed with such qualities mostly seem to lead a happy-go-lucky life!

One can also observe in life that when you have really done a good job and expect a positive outcome, you may get something contrary to it. Also, when you have done some blasphemy and you expect a terrific consequence on account of it, you may perhaps go scot-free. Why is that so?

Karma is unpredictable

People who tend to analyze such occurrences many a time feel extremely bad about the divine law of justice, which seems to be distorted. They tend to feel, considering the happenings in this birth alone, that the proverb “thou shall reap what thy sow” does not seem to work justly.

Perhaps such a stark contradiction is one reason that made saints to analyze Karma and come out with the finding of its continuing effect birth after birth. That is how the second dimension of ‘Time’ comes in to recognition. Any out-of-the-way suffering or enjoyment that you get in this birth, which does not seem to have any seed sown in this birth, must have its origin in some previous births. This is the “Time” dimension of Karma.

At a macroscopic perspective, the entire creation, the living beings, their birth, sustenance and decay are within the overall divine play called Maya. As a divine play, it has all the elements of fun, suspense, unexpected twists and turns of a game, some basic rules and also some breaking and bending of the rules by the Umpire — the God himself!

Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) says “One can not know the truth about God through science. Science gives us information only about the things perceived through senses, as for instance, this material mixed with that material gives such and such a result, that material mixed with this material gives such and such result. A man cannot comprehend spiritual things with (this sort of) his ordinary intelligence”.

Avatara Purushas (God descended in human form) and mahatmas (great souls), who transcend all dualities of creation and establish themselves in Brahman (the all pervading God), are the ones who understand the play of Maya; they explain to us about the utter difficulty in bringing the ways of working of Karma to any predictable and comprehensible level.

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa declares “To tell you the truth, this world is God’s Maya. And there are many confusing things in the realm of Maya. One can not comprehend them”. He further says, “One can by no means say that “this” will come after “that” or “this” will produce “that” “.

Thus any presumption that the law of Karma is infallible and rigid is not true. Any rigid suggestion that there shall be a good reward for the good Karma and a bad reward for the bad Karma and that the intensity of reward or punishment shall be directly proportional to the intensity of the Karma, is not entirely true. In other words, Karma is NOT self-propelling — this is what great Hindu saints declare.

Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), a Jnyani par excellence, in his Upadesa Undhiyar, says “Karma is just jata — non-sentient. The fruits of Karma are decided only by the will of the Creator (God). Can you ever think Karma as God? (You can’t)” This indeed the crucial the third dimension of Karma, namely, “God’s will”.

With all these three dimensions in place, we can comprehend that

  1. For every Karma done, there will be a result/ a fruit/ an effect (Karma phala) which can not be wished away by doer. (When we say “I am suffering from my Karma”, we refer to Karma phala only).
  2. The time at which the result/ the fruit/ the effect will manifest need not be immediate. It has its own humanly incomprehensible time frame cutting across several births.
  3. When the effect will manifest and to what degree or intensity, to what extent of benefit or damage — it lies purely at the will of God.

With this basic understanding, we shall now proceed to understand the classifications of Karma.

Three Types Of Karma

From a theoretical and to a large extent practical and comprehensible standpoint, Hindu scriptures classify Karma in to 3 catagories.

(1) Sanchita Karma (2) Prarabhdha Karma and (3) Agamya Karma.

Sanchita Karma & Prarabhdha Karma

Assuming that we have taken so many births in the past, we should have accumulated quite a huge baggage of Karmas . That huge baggage of karma (i.e. fruits of Karmas) is called the Sanchita Karma. Even in this current birth, whatever effects of karmas you have done since birth till now is also part of your Sanchita Karma.

Out of this huge baggage, by God’s will, some amounts of Karmas are taken out and given to you for enjoyment or suffering in this birth. That portion is called the Prarabhdha. Prarabhdha is indeed the cause of this birth. In a way, we can also say that Karmas remaining in the baggage after taking the Prarabhdha are sanchita Karmas.

In other words, Sanchita Karmas are the potential Prarabhdhas for the future (in this and also future births). They are the prarabhdhas in the waiting list! Sanchita Karmas are like the arrows remaining in the arsenal of the hunter. He may use them at any appropriate time in the future.

Whatever suffering or enjoyment you are experiencing in this birth are due to your Prarabhdha. It is like the arrows that an archer has already shot from his bow; they will have to hit the targets and they can not be withdrawn. Prarabhdhas have nothing to do with whatever Karmas you are currently doing. Prarabhdhas are effects, while your current activities are your current Karmas, not linked to the current enjoyment or suffering you undergo.

This is precisely where people get confused! This is where the questions like “Why is he suffering while he is doing good things only?” are raised.

As already said, for which Karma done on which birth has the Prarabhdha now started taking effect, no one would know, except God. Some saints say that Karma done earlier in this present birth too can become Prarabhdha later in this very birth, since every thing is subject to God’s will. Sri Ramakrishna says that any undisciplined activities done in the youth may start producing their ill effects at older age in the same birth.

Agamya Karma

Doing of Karma based on our wishes, needs, desires and in-born tendencies (called vasanas) is a continuous process. Karmas that you are doing right now and Karmas you are going to do in the future are Agamya Karmas; (Once those Karmas are done, they get added to the bundle of Sanchita Karmas. Agamya Karmas are like the new arrows that the hunter makes which he transfers to his arsenal once the weapons are made.

Thus Hinduism beautifully and almost scientifically classifies the Karmas without ambiguity.

Prarabhdha Karma And God’s Intervention

The general rule is that once the prarabhdha karma starts working, you can not escape from it totally; the recommended way to tackle it is to accept and bear it. Hinduism lays great emphasis on “Saranagathi” — total surrender to God as the best way to tackle the evil effects of prarabhdha. By developing firm faith that it is God who is the dispenser of the effects of Karma, accept everything as His will. If the suffering becomes intolerable, pray to him for succor. Saints declare that the more you try to fight out the evil effects of prarabhdha using your egotism, the more you get deeply entangle into it.

Holy Mother Sarada Devi (1853-1920) declares that God is all merciful and he would not bear a true devotee suffering excessively. If your prarabhdha is such that you have to suffer from a snake bite, she says that by God’s will it may just turn out to be a prick of a nail.

What if the prarabhdha is to cause you an unexpected windfall of enjoyment in life? In reality, it may have more potent traps for you to accumulate new Agamya karmas. Any unusual windfall of luck and gratification has every chance to boost your ego and make you forget God; instead of grasping that what you are enjoying right now may not have anything to do with your present actions or merits, you may be tempted to loosen up your morals and go in for more indulgence. That may sooner or later trigger the arrival of bad prarabhdhas.

Mata Amritanandamayi says that a person starts getting trouble in life particularly in a period when his egotism peaks.

One who remains surrendered to God understands that any out-of-the-way windfall of merry or prosperity was endowed to him by the will of God and he would be ever watchful so as not to get carried away by the lure of transitory pleasures.

Does Repentance Help?

Another question normally comes up in mind is whether honest repentance about an evil act done in the past decreases the bad consequence of the Karma? Can a good act of charity cancel out the evil effect of some other bad karma?

It is generally perceived that that good karmas and bad karmas have their own independent line of existence; It might be like the “credit” and “debit” having their independent entries in a double-entry book keeping system!

However, an honest repentance does seem to have a sobering effect on its specific consequence of punishment for the evil act. But, “canceling out” of a bad karma by an independent good karma doesn’t seem to be a practical proposition, though it may have a definite bearing in “lessening” the burden of the bad karmas. Doing “prayaschitta” (making some amends by doing good act) is generally recommended by saints to lessen the bad impact of prarabhdha.

Can Karma lead to lower births (like animals)?

Hindu scriptures say that human birth is rare to get and it should be rightly utilized to elevate oneself to become a better human being and evolve spiritually. We all have freedom of choice in doing Karmas and the actions we chose should never be leading to our mental and spiritual deterioration.

By indulging in evil activities in this birth, we may accumulate negative karmas that have the potential to lead us to a lower birth like an animal. Definitely it delays and affects our spiritual progress.  Mata Amritanandamayi says that excessive attachment to our wealth, children etc may also add to bad karmas leading to our birth as a dog in order to fullfil our desire to be with our kith and kin and safeguard our possessions, by living with our family members of the previous birth.

Karma And Duty

One thing to be clearly understood in karma is that you are bound by the effects of karma only if you have attachment / personal motive / desire behind doing karma. For example, a policeman shooting at rioters on the orders of his officer carries it out as his duty and hence he shall not acquire the karma of killing or wounding some of the rioters.

You Can’t Claim To Be The Executor Of Karma

Suppose you kill a person who has done a grave harm to you in the past; You can not claim “It is his prarabhdha karma that he had to be killed by me; I won’t accrue any sin because I acted as God’s instrument in executing it. Killing him is also my prarabhdha; I can’t help it”. It could be true that getting killed is his parabhdha, but your killing him is clearly an act of your Agamya Karma; you have had a motive, a vengeance in killing him and you have to face the consequences of it. Ordinary mortals can not usurp the role of God and claim justification by lopsidedly interpreting the law of Karma.

Know The Difference Between Kartha And Bhogtha

When you enjoy or suffer as a consequence of your past karmas, you are a “bhogtha” — the experiencer. When you do a karma, you are a “kartha” — the doer. You do not have the freedom of choice as Bhogtha — you have got to experience your effects of karmas of the past (to what ever degree God proffers to you). But you do, to a fair degree, have the freedom of choice as Kartha — doer. If you have a wick lamp, you can use its light to read Bhagavad Gita and get enlightened or you can use it to burn the Gita. This is the freedom of action available to you.

Regarding free will, Sri Ramakrishna says that as long as one has the idea of good and bad, the acting of free will (to choose between the two) too will be there; for one who has surrendered himself fully to God, there is no question of existence of free will; for him, everything is God’s will.

Swarga (Heaven), Naraga (Hell) and Earth – How do they fit in in Karma?

According to puranas, a jiva, when he does extraordinary good deeds on earth and acquire punya during his life time, enjoys life in heaven till he exhausts the punya. Heaven is the place where everything is joyful, no trace of any pain or unpleasantness. The jiva has no physical body; he has only a sukshma (subtle) body and all the enjoyments are only sensual enjoyments, enjoyed at mental body.  Once punyas are exhausted, the jiva has to necessarily come to birth to take up a human life to clear all the other karmas.

In the same way, the jiva has to undergo extreme suffering in hell for all the atrocious crimes and evils that he commits in human birth.  The Garuda Purana elaborates the various punishments that awaits the jivan for different heinous crimes he commits in earth. Here again, all the sufferings are at the sukshma body, experienced at mind. Here again, once the evil karmas are exhausted through punishment in hell, the jivan has to return to earth to taka a new body.

Ultimately, the earth is the only “Karma bhoomi” where the jivan has scope for totally playing out his good and bad and evolve spiritually by being a kartha as well as bhogta. In heaven or  hell, he is just a bhogta. He is not a kartha.

There are also view points saying that the very earth itself is both Swarga and Naraga because all sorts of enjoyments and sufferings exist here itself.

Karma Yoga – The way to escape the Karma cycle

As long as one has desires, ambitions and motives and engages in action to satiate them, the cycle of karma will never get severed. Man will have to keep taking births over births to enjoy the good effects of good karma and evil effects of bad karma. Hinduism says that human birth is not meant to be wasted for ever in this seemingly never ending cycle. It is simply the divine play of Maya that keeps deluding men into sensual, intellectual and egoistic pleasure-seeking, thereby subjecting them into countless cycles of birth and death. Getting caught in this never ending cycle of birth and death is known as Samsara.

But at some point of time, those who wake up to the hopelessness of this mad running around turn to true spirituality to seek a solution. Hinduism says that it is your attachment to fruits of actions that binds you to karma. If you can perform work with detachment towards the fruits, if you surrender all the fruits of actions to God, then you are not bound by the consequences of the Karma. This is the secret of attaining liberation and this is known as Karma Yoga — a great doctrine elaborated by Sri Krishna in the Holy Scripture Bhagavat Gita.

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Related reading — Some more Q&A on Karma theory….

 

Understanding Hinduism – get a bird’s eye view of Hinduism and all its facets

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.

Lord Brahma- The Creator

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.

Lord Shiva – The destroyer. Those who worship Shiva as the prime God are called Saivas.

ii) Vaishnavam:  The sect whose prime God of worship is lord Vishnu.

Lord Vishnu   (With Lord Brahma depicted sitting in a lotus flower emanating from the Navel) and His divine consort Lakshmi at His feet) Those who worship Vishnu as the prime lord are called Vaishnavas..

iii) Shaktam: The sect whose personal God of worship is Shakti, the Universal Mother.

Devi Para Shakti.  She is the devine consort of Shiva. The Universal Mother. Those who worship Shakti are called Shaktas.

  iv) Ganapathyam: The sect whose personal God of worship is Ganapathi (or Vinayaka).

Lord Ganapati or Ganesha.   He is the elder Son of Lord Shiva (Also known as Pillayar). He is the remover of Hurdles.  Those who worship Ganesha as the prime lord belong to the sect Ganapatyam.

v) Koumaram: The sect whose personal God of worship is Karthikeya (or Subramanya or Muruga)

Lord Subrahmanya or Muruga. He is the younger son of Shiva  (also called Kumara). Those who worship Lord Subrahmanya as prime belong to the sect Koumaram)

(vi) Souryam — for the worshipers of Sun; but this sect is practically non-existent now.

Lord Surya (Sun) Exclusive worship of Surya, as a sect Souryam is not prevalent 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.

“Again and again one is born, And again and again one dies, And again and again one sleeps in the mother’s womb, Help me to cross this limitless sea of life, which is uncrossable, my Lord!” – Bhajagovindam by Sri Sankaracharya)

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.

Human birth is rare to get. It should be utilized to evolve oneself upwards spiritually. It should not be wasted in enjoyment of lowly pleasures and indulgence, leading to animal births again.

Karma and God’s grace:

Lord Shiva coming to the rescue of His devotee Markandeya to save him from death.

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.

What is popularly known as Yoga across the world today actually is practice of Yoga asanas (body postures) which is part of Hatha Yoga practices in Hinduism.

(6) The three schools of philosophy — DvaitaVisishtadvaita 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 PuranamVishnu 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.

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