SALIENT FEATURES OF HINDUISM
Hinduism is an ancient religion often called Sanatan Dharma, which means eternal religion. It started approximately five thousand years ago, but there is no definite time or personality which can be said to be its beginning. The ancient civilization of the Indus Valley was quite advanced at that time. Later the Aryans * supposedly came into India and brought with them an oral religion which was later written down to become the four Vedas. The religion which came to be known as Hinduism was originally calledVedism or Brahmanism. The Vedas were memorized and handed down from generation to generation. It was later compiled by Ved Vyas as the Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. These Vedas taught various types of worships called Yajnas to various gods and celestial beings. Later the Upanishads were added to the Vedas. The Upanishads became known as the Vedanta Philosophy which means those at the end of the Vedas. The teachings contained in the Upanishads were further elaborated in important texts called the Brahmasutras – short aphorisms for easy memorization explaining the ultimate Truths. These were also written by the Sage Ved Vyas. The Vedanta philosophy became divided into Advaita Vedanta, and later Vishisht Advaita or qualified non-dualism of Ramanuja. The Advaita, or non-dualism, was further propounded by the one of the greatest of world philosophers, Adi Shankara, in the eight century as the highest teachings of Hinduism.
From Hinduism came the Yoga system with its eight parts outlining in detail the attainment of liberation which is union with God, called samadhi. There are seven preparatory stages called Yamas, Niyamas, Asanas, Pranayamas, Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana, then Samadhi. On attaining Samadhi a person becomes an enlightened sage and becomes free from the effects of Karmas. This is a very well thought out and logical system that can match any other scientific system for the spiritual, moral and social betterment of humanity.
Hinduism also produced the six great philosophies called Darshanas. They are Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vedanta, Vaiseshika and Purva Mimansa. These philosophies delved into the nature of the universe in terms of composition and arrangement right up to the highest unity of all in the formless eternal Brahman (not brahmin, the caste). This is the non-dualist or monistic teaching which India has given to the world. All the greatest speculative thoughts of life, the cosmos, and God have been elucidated in India. India is justly called the cradle of religions.
Here it is well to note what Max Muller, the great German Indologist, had to say about India and its teachings:
If I were to look over the whole world to find out the country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power, and beauty that nature can bestow in most part a very paradise on earth – I should point to India. If I were to ask under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions of some of them which will deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant – I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself from what literature we, here in Europe, we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thoughts of Greeks and Romans and one of the Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw that corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human, a life, not only this life only, but a transfigured and eternal life, again I should point to India.”
From the foregoing statement it can be seen that India, indeed, has a great deal of wisdom to offer to the rest of the world. The mind of the sages of India was not content just to read a scripture and to follow blindly. They delved into themselves to find the answers that governed life from the soul to God, and to the material universe. Mahatma Gandhi recognized the contribution India can make to the world when he stated: “An India awakened and free has a message of peace and goodwill to give to a groaning world”.
Hinduism has laid out the four Purusharthas for the attainment of liberation, and which also form the goal of life. They are Dharma or religious duties in all aspects of life; Artha or the earning of material wealth in order to sustain life and to perform charitable work; Kama or the fulfillment of noble and uplifting desires; and Moksha or liberation from the bondage of ignorance and delusion, and material bondage. It sets the person free to roam in the spiritual region of self-knowledge. And not content with living, outlined in these goals, the sages have devised a progressive system by which one can attain this highest wisdom. They are:
(i) Vivek – the practice of discriminative knowledge to know the reality from unreality, the truth from falsehood, etc.;
(ii) Vairagya – detachment from all passions and material bondage so as to be free to pursue the highest goal of life;
(iii) Shatsampat – the six virtues of gaining control over the mind and senses, and practicing faith, endurance, non-attachment to external ceremonials and meditation, and
(iv) Mumukshutva – an intense longing for the realization of God.
In addition, they have devised the attainment of supreme knowledge by:
(a) Sravan – listening to the great teachings, either by reading or through discourses with saintly people;
(b) Manan – to contemplate on the teachings read or heard;
(c) Nididhyasan – meditation on the teachings until they form part of your being in a state of realization and
(d) Sakshatakara – the manifestation of Divine wisdom in one’s own life.
Hinduism has also divided life into four states called ashramas. And these are:
(i) Brahmacharya – which is approximately the first twenty-five years of life given to celibacy and the study under a guru;
(ii) Grihasta – to marry and to raise a family and to look after household responsibilities.
(iii) Vanaprastha – to withdraw from worldly duties and to give oneself to a devotional contemplative life, usually in an isolated area, such as a forest and
(iv) Sanyasa – which is detachment from all worldly pursuits and wandering for the dissemination of knowledge and for attaining ultimate peace and bliss in life.
Hinduism is a very resilient religion and there are no fixed dogmas. People can practice Hinduism in the way they see fit according to their own temperament and inclination. Yet, they all form a totality. Because of its resilience Hinduism has been able to withstand and often absorb other religions which have foisted themselves on India. It has also influenced the other religions without losing its own spirit. It is one of the major world religions with about one billion adherents throughout the world. Since Hinduism is based on very meticulous analysis of the soul, the mind, the gross elements making up the body – the microcosm, and the cosmos or the macrocosm, and since it deals with the intimate relationship and ultimate identity of the two, Hinduism stands on a very firm foundation, and it can never be toppled from its solidity.
The goal of Hinduism is nothing less than to elevate ordinary mortals to saints of the highest order. This is achieved by control of the passions which are described as lust, anger, attachments, greed, and ego. When these are controlled, the mind becomes serene. In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna describes such a state:
“When he sets aside desires,
All that have entered his mind, O Partha,
And is contented in himself and through himself,
He is called a man of steady wisdom.
He whose mind turns not in sorrows, who enjoys but longs not for joys, he whose passions, fear and wrath are gone, that steady minded man is called a sage”.
This essay has been a brief and, of necessity, a superficial overview of the salient features of Hinduism. It is hoped that it will shed some light on the nature and importance of Hinduism in the religious life of humanity.
Dr. Jagessar Das
Kabir Association of Canada
*The Aryan invasion theory is now debated, that it did not take
Hinduism, Aryan Invasion, Vedas, Yoga, Advaita, Dharma, Ashramas