Why were Brahmins treated superior in ancient India? Do Brahmins of the present day really think they are superior to other classes of people? Is ‘Brahmin pride’ really justified?

The source of knowledge of all rituals and mantras is Vedas, particularly Yajur Veda for rituals. Only Brahmins were originally entitled to learn Veda and practice the rituals because only brahmins had the required qualities and qualifications for it.

Those who do the poojas, prayers and rituals were expected to live a pure life, be very dedicated, be free from lust and greed, lead an extremely simple life (funded purely by donations/ gifts/ grants from Kings or the dakshina —voluntary offering paid by the ritual seekers). They were expected to eat less, practice austerities of the highest order, never work for a salary, follow vegetarianism, not consume alcoholic drinks etc. These were indeed the essential qualifications for people who were to be fit enough for conducting rituals and also to memorize Vedas and repeat them verbatim, because Vedas were transmitted from generation to generation only through word by mouth.

Of the four varnas, only Brahmins were able to live up to these fundamental expectations. Brahmins had access to Sankrit and they were good in reciting Vedas with proper intonation that is very essential for the mantras to take effect. Naturally, the tradition was followed generations after generations. Further other knowledge like Dhanurveda (scriptures about archery) and philosophy (contained in Upanishads) were to be taught to others for which Brahmins were fit enough and brilliant enough.

Thus even though Brahmins were in exclusive possession of the greatest knowledge source of Hinduism, they opted to live an extremely simple and pure life as per dharma ordained on them. They were free from jealousy, greed and they shunned violence. Naturally, they commanded respect in the society. Kings prospered through their association with Brahmins and they naturally showed lots of respect to Brahmins.

That’s how in ancient India, Brahmins were treated superior to other varnas.

However, in today’s cultural background things are totally different.

Practically all those who call themselves brahmins have only a semblance of  Brahmins  today. If you read “Deivatthin Kural” by Kanchi Maha Swamigal (Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi) (1884-1984), you will find that he has unequivocally said that today’s brahmins are far, far deviated from what true Brahmins are supposed to be and we have little to claim and feel proud to be brahmins in the real sense.

Mind you, Kanchi Maha Swamigal was the pontiff of Kanchi Kamakoti Matt and he was an extremely revered Brahmin saint, considered to be a Jivan Mukta. When he makes such a statement, we have to take it at its face value.

Who is a Brahmin?

A Brahmin is

  • One whose whole time job is Veda parayana (chanting vedas) , Veda abhyasam (learning veda’s teachings) and Veda Samrakshanam (protecting veda).
  • one who does nitya karma (daily rituals) without fail. It covers
    • 1) Trikala Sandhya Vandanam (worship-thrice-a-day: as Pratha Sandhya — at early morning, Madyaniga Sandhya — at noon and Saayam Sandhya — at dusk) to be done by all males. who have obtained Brahmopadesam.
    • 2) Samithadanam (offerings to fire) recommended daily once, by unmarried Brahmacharis)
    • 3) Aboupasanam (offerings to fire — recommended daily twice, by married Adults and unmarried Brahmacharis)
    • 4) Brahma Yagnyam (recommended to perform daily, once, after Madhyaniga Sandhya)
    • 5) Pithru Tharpanam (offerings to deceased parents — specific dates in a month, Lunar cycle dependent, to be performed ONLY by those Male members whose father has passed away).
  • One who eats his food by begging, or by means of dana obtained from kings
  • one who lives the life of a teacher to teach Vedic knowledge (or arts, archery etc) and lives by guru dakshina (offerings to the guru) which is not to be demanded (i.e. only voluntary contributions).
  • One who leads a life of extreme simplicity (bordering on poverty) as a dharma
  • one who does not work and earn his livelihood by any other means
  • one who abhors possessing of material wealth, accumulating and hoarding
  • one who is extremely careful about his physical and mental purity and takes immediate corrective measures and goes through self-purification ceremonies.
  • is never offensive, always following ahimsa, never retaliating, never killing, always forbearing, sacrificing. having his senses under control, never lustful, non-drinking etc
  • one who strives for Brahma Gnyana (knowledge of the supreme) as the only purpose of life.
  • one who does not resort to doing activities of the other varnas — Kshatriya (warriors) , Vaishya (traders) or Sudra (laborers and artisans).

Of course, it is obvious that not only brahmins but also all other varnas have deviated far away from the type of lives ordained to them in scriptures. Obviously there is virtually no scope of going back.

Most of the brahmins of today are brahmana-kshatryas (rulers and buracrats) , Brahmana-Vysyas (businessmen, company executives, traders) or Brahmana-Sudras (workers and skilled labor force – including IT Engineers!).

Brahmins are supposed to be never running behind money. But every educated brahmin is very much in the rat race of money-making; it has almost come to a stage in Tamil Nadu that if a brahmin boy does not earn in dollars, he is not considered as Brahmin!

Even brahmins fitting into Vedic brahminism (purohits called Vadhyars/ Shashtrigalin Tamil) who conduct rituals like marriages, death ceremonies, Shraddda Karma etc as per vedic practices are extremely money-minded and demand their cut but not necessarily proportionately knowledgeable in mantras and rites.

On the positive side, we should also acknowledge that many Brahmins even today carry better principles and values by way of their strict upbringing; they are in general far more honest, straight forward, free from bad/evil habits, trustworthy, intelligent, reliable, sincere, non-violent and law abiding.

Varnashrama is gone and only castes remain in Indian society. And Brahmins too exist as a caste only, carrying a false sense of superiority, not as per the original definition and exalted role of Brahmins outlined in varnashrama dharma.

If Varnashrama system were ordained by God truly, why is not existing in other cultures or societies across the world?

The Varnashrama Dharma (classification of the society into 4 classes of people based on their work and role in society in Hinduism), which unfortunately got hardened and compartmentalized into a system of castes, is frequently blamed as a major reason for underprivileged people in the lower strata of the society to leave Hinduism for good.

While the caste system and the consequent demarcation of some of them as ‘upper’ and some as ‘lower’ can be blamed for some of the ills in the social practices of Hinduism, it is outright foolhardy to imagine that “Varnashrama” does not exist in any other religion or society!

In any  religion, even where an overt caste or profession-based demarcation does not seemingly exist, there will invariably be the rich, powerful and influential persons who become de facto “upper castes” and the rest who are not so privileged become “lower castes”. Again there will indeed be different levels of people fitting between “upper” and “lower” depending on the clout they have with money, power or influence.

In any part of the world, in any decent society, you will find these sort of people:

  • Teachers, professors, clergies, preachers, research scholars, scientists, intellectuals, linguistics — They are de facto equivalent to Brahmin class
  • Politicians, statesmen, ministers, Top officers in administrative services, chiefs of Defense (Army/ Navy. Air force), military officers — they are de facto equivalent to Kshatriya Class.
  • Businessmen, traders, Industrialists, small Industry owners — they are de facto equivalent to Vysya Class.
  • Laborers, workmen, craftsmen, technicians — they are de facto equivalent to Shudra Class.

In the present times, even in India, it is common place to see Brahmins by caste being engaged in politics, civil services, trading/ business etc. Poor under-educated Brahmins too work as cooks, technicians etc. If a shudra by birth becomes a Sanskrit professor, he is in a way a Brahmin only, as per original definition.

Even if caste systems go, the social class differences between the rich and poor, the elite and the underdog are not going to vanish. That is the reality of human society.

 

Purusharthas – Dharma, Artha, Kama & Moksha

The purpose of a religion is basically to pave a way for leading a meaningful, smooth and joyous life without sacrificing mental peace and without too much pain and suffering.

Hinduism which is sanatana dharma — the way of righteous living contains more than enough guidelines for the above purpose.

Purusharthas

Hindhu dharma outlines four Purusharthas — meaningful pursuits for life: Dharma, Artha, Kama & Moksha.

Dharma (Righteousness)

Righteousness and duties in life. Hinduism places highest importance to following righteousness in life. Whatever be your activity in life, if it confirms to right dharma, it brings in peace and harmony in life. The Hindu dharma does not permit an unbridled life of carefree enjoyment; everything has its preset boundaries. ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ is never considered the goal of life. Every individual is bound by his duties and responsibilities towards his family, to the society, to the nation and to the entire nature and universe even encompassing the departed souls of forefathers and devatas (demigods controlling the nature) in the upper worlds. In ancient Hindu civilization, Manu Smriti was the scripture elaborating the dharmas to be followed in life by different classes of people.

Artha (Wealth)

Going in pursuit of money, wealth, comforts and possessions is indeed considered as an essential aspect of human life. But it shall not be the only goal of life and whatever one does to acquire Artha should be bound by dharma. Else, one is sure to end up in a chaotic life of suffering.

Kama (Pleasure)

Seeking pleasure through the 5 senses including sexual pleasure is the very nature of all creatures. Again Hinduism permits enjoyment within boundaries. Any hunt for joy ignoring dharma is highly discouraged because such a pursuit may bring short term joy but end up in pain in the long run.

Moksha (Liberation)

Of all the acceptable pursuits of life, seeking Moksha (liberation from the Samsara — from the cycle of births and deaths) is considered the highest goal of life. Man, after pursuing a life of seeking artha (wealth) and kama (pleasures) and even leading a life of strict dharma (righteousness) is bound to feel a shallowness in life at some point of time or other. Even within one’s life time, the process of ending up in old age deprives one from enjoying artha and kama to any level of reasonable satisfaction and  a sense of dejection of not having enjoyed enough lingers in the mind even at the death bed.

This causes subsequent births and the cycle keeps on continuing, because the the fundamental nature of wealth or sensual enjoyments is such that practically no one ever gets a feeling “enough is enough”. This aspect of creation is known as maya. Maya always deludes people to indulge in more and more enjoyment leading only to more and more suffering or dissatisfaction.

At some point of other in life, at some birth or other, man starts wondering whether his hunt for wealth and enjoyment is fundamentally flawed somewhere. He starts seeking more clear answers for the true meaning of birth. It is at this point, a man grows from the clutches of religious faith to spirituality. From the Karma Kanda in Vedas (that gave all the procedures for seeking worldly enjoyments) a seeker elevates himself to Jnana Kanda — Vedanta /Upanishads  and he gets the right answers and clarifications now.

He gets mentally prepared to leave behind Artha and Kama and goes behind Moksha as the only meaningful pursuit in life.

What is the strongest argument in favour of Hinduism?

The strongest argument in favour of Hinduism, in my opinion, is the concept of Karma and rebirth existing in Hinduism.

To understand more on this subject, please click:  “The concept of Karma & Rebirth in Hinduism

I believe karma and rebirth theory is very elaborate, exhaustive, very logical and convincing in Hinduism.

How does it compare with after-death-theories offered by Christianity and Islam? This detailed comparison is available in my reply to the following Question:

If someone is kind, loving, considerate, compassionate, law abiding and just a good person all his life, but doesn’t believe in God, would he go to hell?

Why do Brahmins perform all the Hindu rituals?

The source of knowledge of all rituals is Veda, particularly Yajur Veda. Only Brahmins were originally entitled to learn Veda and practice the rituals because only brahmins had the required qualities and qualifications for it.

Those who do the poojas, prayers and rituals were expected to live a pure life, be very dedicated, be free from lust and greed, lead an extremely simple life (funded purely by donations/ gifts/ grants from Kings or the dakshina —voluntary offering paid by the ritual seekers). They were expected to eat less, practice austerities of the highest order, never work for a salary, follow vegetarianism, not consume alcoholic drinks etc. These were indeed the essential qualifications for people who were to be fit enough for conducting rituals.

Of the four varnas, only Brahmins were able to live up to these fundamental expectations. Brahmins had access to Sankrit and they were good in reciting Vedas with proper intonation that is very essential for the mantras to take effect. Naturally, the tradition was followed generations after generations.

Like everything in nature being subjected to degradation, Brahmins too got degraded; Brahmins too became greedy, started demanding money for services, started dominating and demeaning other castes, slackened their grip on sanskrit, diluted vedic practices and so on.

But still, by virtue of the tradition, Brahmins are still seen as best of the lot to continue with the practices of conducting rituals. So it goes on.

If attaining Moksha is the aim of life in Hinduism, why there are mentions about Swarg (heaven) and Narak (hell)?

Let us first read a funny anecdote that Sri Ramakrishna said. Sri Keshab Chandra Sen was a very popular religious leader in Kolkotta and he was the chief of Nav Vidhan Brahma Samajam. The Samajam was one of the prominent and powerful spiritual movement in Kolkotta and Kesab had many admirers and followers. He was quite rich. He was a very powerful orator too and admired by many.

Keshab Chandra Sen & Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

He was fortunate to come across Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and got gradually and deeply attracted to the saint. He could understand that whatever lofty spiritual subjects he was lecturing on, Sri Ramakrishna was a living and practical embodiment of them.

He used to listen to Ramakrishna’s freewheeling talks on religion and spirituality in rapt attention.

One day he said to Sri Ramakrishna, “Swami, I want you to teach me much more deeper insights into spirituality”. Ramakrishna said laughingly, “I can teach you alright, but if you listen to them and act on them, your Samajam and all would vanish!”

Swiftly, Keshab said, “then whatever you have taught me is good enough, Swami”.

Hope you get the purport of this story here. Not all religious people are in search of Moksha. Most of them want happy and prosperous life in this world and they want to enjoy life in higher worlds too. If scriptures say ‘if you do these acts of punya, conduct great fire sacrifices, feed poor in large scale, construct temples and so on, God will be pleased with you and give you a life in heaven post death’.

At the same length, people need to be warned of leading a life of extreme suffering in the hell, if they engage in evil and atrocious acts in this life.

Thus Swarga and Naraga have their purpose to ordinary people who are very much bound to Samsara and have no keenness to get out of it. Despite whatever suffering they undergo, people will still cling to life and hope that enjoyment will come in due course.

The concept of moksha is attractive only to spiritually more evolved people who could understand that life is like a dream of never ending wants and hunting behind happiness by trying to meet the wants but not getting it mostly.

For such people, karma yoga is the path — working without attachment to the fruits of Karma. For them freedom from the hopeless cycle of births and death — moksha is the only meaningful goal in life.

Why do people chant slokas and hymns to praise God? What is the need?

There are two approaches behind praising God.

  1. An ordinary devotee’s love for God is purely materialistic. He wants good things to happen to him, he wants money, wealth and possessions; he wants to escape from suffering. He believes God is like an over-sized superman. Human beings want and love appreciation, words of praise, honors etc and they will positively respond, even out of the way, to help you when you praise and adore them. These devotees apply the same yardstick to God too and hope to reap the benefits in shortcut!
  2. A true and serious devotee who has real bhakti in his heart starts loving God as his dearest. When you are deeply in love with a girl without any pretense, you start appreciating openly her beautiful looks, her manners, her qualities etc. You derive joy in showering your praise because it comes deep from your heart. You write poems about her; send her love letters/ messages etc. These things just come out naturally out of your emotional overflow of love towards her. In the same way, true devotees of God definitely get joy in singing hymns and praising his divine qualities.

When the love of a boy culminates into marriage with the girl, then all the former words of praise don’t flow any more. Their love is so matured now that it is no longer dependent on verbal expressions. In the same way, when a bhakta’s love on God matures into Jnyana (spiritual knowledge), then the devotee no longer feels the urge to keep praising the lord. He turns inwards; he silently meditates on God and start feeling the Sat-chit-Ananda inside.

What is the difference between a Guru, Sadguru and Acharya?

The word Guru means one who dispels darkness – a teacher.

The word Acharya means one who teaches the right conduct – again a teacher, basically.

But other than the straight meaning, in Hinduism both Guru as well as Acharya are associated with a master to whom a religious/ spiritual aspirant goes and seeks guidance in the matter of divine/ spiritual/ adyatma knowledge.

In certain sampradayas (traditions) (e.g. Vaishnava), the master is referred to as Acharya rather than Guru.

Again there are finer differences.

A GURU

Normal Gurus may or may not have the divine authority to teach spirituality to others, but they may act as guru based on appointment as a spiritual heirs of their gurus, or by the strength of whatever spiritual experience or workable knowledge they have gained through experience. Whatever they have gained or experienced through the path or technique they followed or received from the blessings of their Gurus, they will teach to their followers and it could be limited and narrow too (example: worshiping a specific God form only, instructing a specific mantra only, teaching a specific pranayama method only, instructing a particular meditative method only, vouching on a particular religious path and discipline only).

The normal Guru is likely to spread his knowledge as well as his ignorance to his followers (e.g. refusing to acknowledge or approve any other path, any other God forms, any other sadhana technique etc; he may even criticize and condemn others). (Please note: Not all Gurus may behave like this). A normal Guru may also be very possessive about his cult and followers and if any of them leave in search of anything better, they may condemn and criticize them. (Please note: Not all Gurus may behave like this).

In some cases, a guru may not be very learned in scriptures, but he may have personally experienced God. His experience could be anywhere from getting a glimpse of God/divinity, a sighting of light to the highest knowledge, to the highest state of ‘sahaja nirvikalpa samadhi‘ — remaining permanently immersed in the state of unity with God without any duality. A guru of the highest state of personal experience/ attainment is known as Sadguru. (Explained at the end).

AN ACHARYA

At the elite level, an Acharya is the one who, by deeply learning scriptures from competent Gurus and through dedicated self-study, analysis, understanding, tapas (practicing austerities), prayers, meditation and so on gets a very clear idea about a particular school of thought or philosophy that he feels extremely sure of. Then he goes about (by divine will) to teach his school of thought to ardent seekers and followers. He engages himself in intellectual arguments with pundits of different other schools and establishes supremacy of his ideas. (Ex: Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya).

On the other hand, on a normal practical level, an Acharya is invariably quite learned (intellectually) in scriptures and most probably with adequate Sanskrit knowledge. He might have gained quite some sound theoretical knowledge about a particular sect, school of philosophy, Worship of god-form, a specific scripture etc .

An acharya, may or may not have had any personal experience of God or divinity; yet, by virtue of certain sampradayas (traditions) an Acharya may get appointed as the chief of a Mutt by purely the strength of his scriptural knowledge and capacity to lecture. He may take up sanyas by leaving behind his erstrwhile grihasthasrama (house holder life) in order to don that post. (e.g. South Indian Vaishnava Mutts like Srimad Andavan Ashram or Jeeyar).

There may also be certain traditions where only a Brahmachari (unmarried) sanyasin will be appointed as the head/ future head i.e. Acharya of the mutt and not Grihasthas. (e.g. Sankara Mutt).

Acharyas of formal Mutts will strictly teach their sampradaya only to their followers. Depending on their spiritual attainment (if and when they get it) they may or may not acknowledge other paths and methods as valid or acceptable, but they will be strictly bound by their tradition and will not recommend or suggest or openly acknowledge any other method, practice or path as a valid one.

In certain mutts (example: Ramakrishna mutt), there may be several sanyasins, but only some will be authorized act as gurus and acharyas. Those who are recognized as Gurus alone will be authorized to give Mantra diksha to their disciples. Those who are recognized as acharyas will be the ones who have acquired good scriptural knowledge and they will be the ones to conduct scriptural classes, give discourses and lectures etc. Some acharyas may evolve into diksha Gurus too.

A SADGURU (Satguru)

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa — “As many faiths, so many paths”.

Sadguru indeed is the Guru of the highest order; he/she is the one who has experienced divinity in full and remain ever immersed in it. In the path of bhakti he/she will be the one who has attained prema bhakti and attained union with his personal God. In the path of Gnana, he/she  will be the knower of Self , the one who has personally experienced the state of Advaita. In the path of yoga, he/she is the one who is established in Sahaja Nirvikalpa Samadhi. A satguru is one in whom the mind has been annihilated. He/she is the one who has totally eradicated ego; he/she is totally freed of vasanas. He/she is a jeevan mukta (liberated while being alive).

Bhagwan Ramana Maharshi — “When Palaniswami came and read out various scriptures brought from library, I was surprised: “How come whatever I have experienced are mentioned in these books?”

A satguru may even be unlettered or hardly be educated in primary school. But he/she would have the entire knowledge of scriptures contained in a nutshell in his personal experience. You will find learned pundits and Acharyas falling at his/her feet to get get clarifications and insight into scriptures that they have been learning life long.

A satguru has reached the peak and from the peak, he/she sees that all the paths are leading to just one end. He/she is not bound by any specific sampradaya through which he may have attained the highest state. He/she acknowledges and accepts all the valid paths, gurus, scriptures, techniques and his only interest is to guide people from any path, any sampradaya to follow their path with true understanding and attain God. He/she is not compartmentalized. He/she accepts one and all. He/she goes even beyond boundaries of religion and attracts people from all religions. Love for mankind flows unconditionally from their heart.

A satguru may not really appear in any Guru or Acharya Parampara. A Satguru in all probability will be a swayambu (self existing). A Satguru may be born in a remote village to simple and unassuming parents who have least to exposure to anything divine. A Satguru could be an avatara purusha. He/she arrives by divine will to teach the mankind. To show a new path. To cleanse a stagnant and dirtied religion or a religious sect. He/she is like a large steamer that can carry hundreds of ardent devotees and disciples across the sea of Samsara.

 

Sadguru Mata Amritanandamayi Devi

When a Sadguru or Avatara Purusha comes, their basic mission is to elevate humankind spiritually. Yet, they may also act in the worldly plane in providing means for common people to meet their essential worldly needs, and in undertaking large scale socially beneficial acts of philanthropy. They may engage themselves in activities like building educational institutions, hospitals, home for destitutes and so on. They may actively engage themselves in relief works after natural disasters. Further, they are also capable of using their extraordinary spiritual powers in helping individual devotees to overcome griefs and sufferings in their personal lives like severe diseases, extreme poverty, emotional problems, addictions, depression and so on. This way, they tend to elevate people’s focus from the mundane issues to more spiritually progressive way of life.

A satguru may come first and a Guru-Sishya Parampara may get established after him. The parampara of his/her main sishyas (future gurus) will spread his light to more and more people. The guru parampara may run for hundreds of years; it may or may not produce any more satgurus in this tradition. It may also get deteriorated and decimated over a period of time.

Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev

Then comes another avatara, another satguru at some other location, at some other context to re-establish dharma suited to the times. It keeps happening so in India from time immemorial. That is the greatness of Bharat and the Sanatana Dharma – Hinduism.

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.

 

Seva – Understanding the human psychology behind volunteering

Unless very spiritually evolved, most of us live in this world with lots of selfish motives. We lead our lives for our sustenance and procreation, to protect ourselves from dangers, to fulfill our desires, to dominate others, to love others, to hate others, to be loved by others, to be respected by others and so on. When, in these motives, we encounter resistance or hurdles, at times we do not mind acting too selfish by causing difficulties and troubles others, subjugating others or treading into others’ territory to garner forcefully something from their rightful share.

The tendency to help others

Side by side with our selfish motives, we also have inkling within our heart, either prompted by our own conscience, or based on the teachings and advice from parents, teachers and religious masters, that selfishness is essentially an undesirable quality. We are also taught to be kind and helpful to others; we are also advised to pay something back to the society in return for what it does for our welfare.

For those believing in God, it is told that God lives in the heart of every being and by offering help to the needy without selfish motives, we are in a way doing something to please the God who happens to be the indweller of the recipient.

Thus even in the heart of a hard core criminal, there is a soft corner to extend a helping hand to others. Tendency to help others is a spiritual force to counter-balance selfishness existing in human psyche.

Volunteering Help

When one willingly offers one’s time, money, material or physical/ mental/intellectual help to others, without “outwardly” expecting anything in return, it is volunteering. Volunteering may take place either unasked or after asked. You see an accident happening on the road right in front of your eyes. You run to the spot and try to extricate accident victims from the damaged vehicle and also call police and ambulance. That is volunteering help unasked.

A neighbor’s son has fallen seriously sick at mid night. The lady in the house is alone and she is too nervous to take her son all alone to the hospital. She wants you to accompany her and you readily agree sacrificing a peaceful sleep at the night. This is volunteering help, when asked.

Who receives the voluntary help

We may offer our voluntary help to relatives, friends, neighbors, local church/ a religious group/ organization, a philanthropic organization, non-profit activities (scientific, intellectual etc) or to a society in distress (say in floods, earthquakes, storms, etc).

Help may also be volunteered to commercial organizations and organizations without a direct role of social welfare, just because the organization sought for voluntary help and there were eager volunteers who felt attached or obligated to the organization in some way. Example: A commercial Blogging site arranging a get-together of all blogging members in a particular town and asking for volunteers from its members for organizing, coordinating and conducting the meeting in an orderly way.

Getting trapped into volunteerism?

Is volunteering always altruistic?

Though volunteering is generally perceived as a good human quality, which is either to be in existence in everyone’s heart or to be cultivated in everyone’s psyche and is perceived to be a quality oriented with one’s spiritual upliftment too, the tendency to volunteer help may not always be altruistic in the heart of a volunteer.

Ideally, in volunteering, selfish motive must be totally absent. But such idealism may not be practical among common mortals.

Mata Amritanandamayi (the “hugging saint”), a great spiritual master in India (and considered as an Avatar of God- Universal Mother) says “Only after self-realization or god realization, one attains a state of complete and total unselfishness. Until that state is reached, whatever service we do calling “selfless service”, is only an attempt to gain the state total unselfishness. Only when our ego is totally eliminated, true selfless service is possible. Until then, some amount of selfishness will always be found mixed in our service. You may claim that you are doing a selfless service, but if your probe deep into you, you will find an element of selfishness lurking inside”.

As Mata says, many times our ego smartly hides our true inner motives of offering voluntary service, and makes us outwardly imagine ourselves to be very unselfish, endowed with very large, magnanimous hearts! Of course, there will always be exceptions and there will always be different degrees of selfishness or unselfishness behind volunteering service.

Overt or hidden motives behind volunteering

Mental and Ego Satisfaction

“It gives me lots of satisfaction to help others; it enhances my personal value to myself; I enjoy helping others and making the world a better place to live; I believe in sharing something that I have but others don’t have” – these are some of the reasons people give when asked what makes them volunteer service to others.

Intellectual satisfaction

A website dedicated to offering solutions on “surface protection against corrosion” invites voluntary “experts” to join the site as members and offer solutions to problems in corrosion issues posted by other members.

Engineers and proprietors of firms who are familiar with corrosion prevention may get themselves enrolled as experts and post solutions to the queries there. Their attitude will be like: “I know I am knowledgeable on this matter and I am quite happy to voluntarily share my knowledge”. For such people it is intellectual satisfaction which is another form of ego satisfaction.

Pride

Some people say, “I feel proud that I am able to help others through my voluntary service”. This pride will find expression through some form of boasting.

A person made in-charge of free food distribution to the poor in a religious festival will boast at opportune moment: “The Swami is very particular that the job should be entrusted only to me and none else. This is the 7th year in a row that I am in-charge of this service. There is so much of work pressure at the office and my manager would not grant me leave. But I said “Nothing doing – if you can’t grant me leave, you can take my resignation straight away; this service is more important than my job”. He virtually saluted me and sanctioned the leave!”

Appreciation/ recognition

Many people do not like to lead a faceless life in this world. People want to get noticed. They want to be become widely known to many, if not famous. Whether they are truly qualified or not, whether they have true expertise or not, people think of themselves as possessors of skills and merits that the world has woefully failed to recognize. If any opportunity to showcase and advertise their “unrecognized merits” comes across, they would not mind volunteering their service free, just to get some form of recognition and appreciation.

A website publishes articles under various major subject groups by obtaining them from authors. The website invites volunteers from its writing community to work as subject experts and their duty is to offer suitable titles for articles, monitor the incoming contents for quality and offer “technical” help to the site and to its writing members based on specific needs.

The members are given “Subject Expert” badges that they can prominently display in their Profile pages. They are permitted to boast about it in their writing endeavors outside the website. The site showers them with accolades and smartly gets things done through their voluntary service, what they have to pay and get otherwise!

Calculative Mentality

There are people who would do something voluntarily today with a calculative mind to get something else in return in the future. A clerk in an office goes all out to voluntarily offer service to the Manager, in planning, arranging and organizing the marriage of the manager’s daughter. His idea is that when it comes to promotions in the office, he will stand a better chance to get it when compared to a colleague, who is definitely much more meritorious, but does not care to develop a cordial one-to-one relationship with the manager.

Though many people would stoutly oppose the following statement, it is a widely perceived fact that businessmen and industrialists join Rotary Clubs and Lion’s clubs and offer their voluntary service with an ulterior motive to socialize and develop good business contacts with other businessmen. The services also offer them a respectable recognition in the society as philanthropists.

Compulsion

A purchase manager in a multi-bullion business organization has a social service organization run by his wife. When vendors meet him for business deals, he would casually mention about the philanthropic organization that his wife runs and how he would really appreciate people offering money or materials (say, cement and steel needed for a school building they are constructing) to the organization. He would give a small lecture on how the world has turned too selfish these days and how philanthropic activities can “spiritually elevate” people. He would conclude saying that whatever he says is purely suggestive. No compulsions; nothing to do with the business deals!

But his vendors will be smart enough to understand. They would make sure to donate money or materials to the philanthropic organization mentioned by the Purchase manager and would gladly await flow of orders from his company.

Atoning sin

And there are people who are lured by worldly pulls, pressures and sensual attractions and go astray by indulging in “sinful” activities. However, deep in their heart, they too may have religious and spiritual moorings and their conscience may warn them of dire consequences of their activities. Such people may tend to consider volunteering service or donating huge sums of money to religious or philanthropic activities as a way of atonement of their sins.

Ramakrishna (left) The Master and Vivekananda (right) the Inspired Disciple – “By serving people you are only serving God”

Helping others – at the exalted spiritual point of view

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a great Hindu spiritual master, who is an expert in exposing threadbare the egoistic machinations human mind, says thus about “helping others”:

“Charity! Doing good to others! How dare you say you can do good to others?… If a householder gives in charity in a spirit of detachment, he is really doing good to himself and not to others. It is God alone that he serves – God, who dwells in all beings; and when he serves lord, he is really doing good to himself and not to others”.

“Helping others, doing good to others – this is the work of God alone… The love you see in parents is God’s love. He has given it to them to preserve his creation. The compassion you see in the kind-hearted person is God’s compassion. He has given it to them to protect the helpless… Do you think the world is so small to depend on your service? ..Whether you are charitable or not, God will have his work done somehow or other”.

Ramakrishna mentions further about his conversation with one of his devotees Shambu.

“Shambu said to me: “It is my desire to build large number of hospitals and dispensaries. This way, I can do much good to the poor”. I said to him: “Yes, that is not bad if you can do it in a detached spirit. But to be detached is very difficult unless you sincerely love God. And further, if you entangle yourself in many activities, you will be attached to them in a way unknown to yourself. You may think you have no motive behind your work, but perhaps there has already grown a desire for fame and the advertising of your name. Further, the pressure of work will make you forget God.”

Charity and love of God

Ramakrishna clearly distinguishes charity work of worldly minded from the Godly minded. He further says “Those who build hospitals and dispensaries and get pleasure from that are no doubt good people; but they are of a different type. He who is a real devotee of God seeks nothing but God. If he finds himself entangled in too much work, he earnestly prays “Lord, be gracious and reduce my work; my mind which should think of you day and night, has been wasting its power; it thinks of worldly things alone”.

Volunteering as Guru Seva with the right mindset

For people who are in the path of spiritual quest, doing voluntary seva is always prescribed by Gurus as the best way of acquiring necessary purity of heart for progressing in spirituality. A spiritual aspirant has to necessarily get rid of his ahankaram (ego) and mamaharam (possessiveness) if he wants spiritual progress.  A sadguru will put a disciple in such a service where there is high scope for his ego getting hit and hurt. He will put him into service where the volunteer is forced to share, sacrifice, adjust with others, come out of his shells of comfort, give away his possessions and possessiveness etc.

The satguru will test his disciples in so many ways by putting him into seva and watching how he performs. Some people will be very attached to their own skills (like photography, painting, computer programming, accounting etc). The satguru may test a disciple by putting them into areas of activities that are totally out of tune with their skills and see how far they are able to adapt, learn new skills and adjust. The guru may give power, post and position to a person and see whether he gets corrupted by them. He may put a person quite used to power, position and commanding others, to work as a subordinate  under another person who may not be fully qualified or skilled in administration.

Unless the disciple is extremely focused in his spiritual goal and be ready to shed his egotism and serve with humility, he would find volunteering quite painful and taxing under a Satguru.

But if the disciple has patience and perseverance, selfless seva is one of the best means to attain mental purity and progress in spirituality at the fastest rate. The Satguru also paves the way for quick disbursal of prarabdhas of the disciple through whatever suffering he undergoes in doing the seva.

Thus volunteering service  has quite a lot of emotional, psychological and spiritual machinations behind it. Volunteering is not truly altruistic always.

Quotation sources:

“Arul Mozhigal – Tamil – Vol. VI Mata Amritanandamayi Math

“The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna” – Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.