Spirit Ministries International
Living Spirit Ministries International
Hinduism and Christianity...A
Hinduism and Christianity...A Comparative Study.
I constructed this paper through many hours of reading, writing, re-writing, keying, editing, and proofreading. I do not profess to be a so-called “expert” on Hinduism; therefore, the paper that you are about to read should not be taken as one written by a Hindu practitioner. Hinduism as a religion is vast. It would take a lifetime to read and study all of its aspects, let alone practice. I humbly confess that my effort is limited to what I have gleaned through reading. Please read what follows with that in mind.
In Christ, Ronald Coleman
Hinduism has developed from pre 3000 BC to the present day. It is not a static religion, but has continued to change by absorbing other religious beliefs. During this process there has been no attempt to standardize beliefs, so today Hindus can quite happily hold a multiplicity of opposing views.
Though Hinduism may seem far removed from everyday American experience, it's becoming more important that Christians understand this mysterious religion from India. The reason is that Hinduism claims millions of followers worldwide. It is also important because its influence is being felt in the United States.
Most people have had at least some exposure to what is called the New Age movement. We have realized that Hinduism is the fountainhead of a good deal of New Age thinking. Most of us are also aware than an increasing number of Asian Indians are residing in the U.S. There are over 200 Hindu temples or Hindu centers in the U.S. Many believe (I am not one of them) that due to its diverse nature, Hinduism has the potential to serve for uniting much of the non-Christian religious world.A Hindu's world-view affects their whole life-style, and may well put most Christians to shame from a materialistic
i] They live with a deep respect for life (ahimsa) because of their belief in the unity of all life. Therefore they tend to be vegetarian. Even their treatment of nature expresses this principle. The tending of a vegetable patch is carried out with care and deep respect for the life-force within each plant. Those Hindus who do eat meat raise the animals without cruelty and take their lives painlessly. Even the preparation and eating of food expresses this principle. For this reason Hindus refrain from talking during a meal.
ii] As matter is something to be cast off - an impediment to the soul - a Hindu puts a low value on material possessions and sensual desires (gluttony, drunkenness, sex, etc.) To dwell on these things, rather than divest them, can only bring rebirth (karma) rather than salvation (moksha) and the attainment of Nirvana. Therefore eating and drinking is carried out in moderation, with certain days set aside as fast days, while sex is held in esteem only for procreation. For this reason marriages of "love" are frowned upon and therefore mostly arranged.
iii] To break from the cycle of rebirths and attain union with God (Nirvana) is a Hindus aim in life. Unless they follow the path set before them (marga), they have no hope. Therefore the performance of their religious and social duty is uttermost in their mind.
Religious duty is extremely involved and varies between
caste and sub
caste. A good Hindu's home will have a separate room for a temple with
containing pictures and statues of the personalized form of Brahman
family worships. On rising in the morning each member of the family
ritual washing, offers prayers inside and outside of the household
eats breakfast separately. Lunch is usually vegetarian. In the evening,
is ritual washing again, evening prayers and offerings in the temple
chanting of mantras (verses from the Veda), the singing of hymns
a reading from scripture in Sanskrit and then translated. After prayers
is the sharing of fire, and then the evening meal. A Hindu is not bound
visit a public temple or holy place and only does so on special
pilgrimages. Their religion tends to be personal.
Social duty must also be faithfully performed. Inward righteousness is stressed, i.e. the motive. The intent of any action determines its worth, i.e. its spiritual value. All action must seek to purify self. Performance of dharma (correct duty) will achieve this. It will also inspire others to follow your path and so find Nirvana themselves. For this reason a Hindu lives their faith rather than preaching it. They will answer questions, but will not evangelize.
The appeal of Hinduism is not difficult to comprehend. For one thing, Hinduism is comfortable with evolutionary thinking. As modern science emphasizes our physical evolution, so Hinduism emphasizes our spiritual evolution. As much of modern psychology emphasizes the basic goodness and unlimited potential of human nature, so Hinduism emphasizes man's essential divinity. As modern philosophy emphasizes the relativity of all truth claims, so Hinduism tolerates contradictory religious beliefs. As a religion that also emphasizes the predominance of the spiritual over material reality, Hinduism appeals to disillusioned people with material pursuits.
Although there are some beliefs common to virtually all Hindus, there is no "Hindu orthodoxy"—no dogma that all Hindus must believe. Hinduism is a concatenation of developing beliefs and practices.
Hinduism has its roots in the interrelationship of two basic religious systems: that of the ancient civilization residing in the Indus River Valley from the third millennium B.C., and the religious beliefs brought to India by the Aryan people who began infiltrating the Indus Valley sometime after 2000 B.C.
The religion of the Aryans is described in the writings of "holy men" contained in the Vedas (meaning "knowledge" or "wisdom"). The Vedas are four collections of writings composed between about 1500 and 500 B.C. that form the basis for Hindu beliefs, and that reveal a gradual development of religious ideas. The later sections of the Vedas are known as the Upanishads. These Vedic writings are considered sruti, the infallible, inspired word of God. Later Hindu writings, including the Bhagavad Gita, are of lesser authority, but widely popular.
Overview of Hinduism
The Hindu Cosmos
Classical Hinduism takes its form from the uniting of two different (and indeed opposing) worldviews. This unification is the result of a long religious and intellectual confrontation (roughly 500 to 300 bce) between the Vedic Religion and the worldviews of Jainism and Buddhism. From the Vedic Religion, it took the life-affirming perspective and from Jainism and Buddhism, along with the late Upanishads it developed a life-negating view. Both views were fit into the understanding of the cosmos that Hinduism developed out of the Vedas. To explain how this works, we must start with two intertwined descriptions of the cosmos, from which we will then move to the life-is-good and life-is-bad approaches to the human problem.
The Hindu Cosmos #1
A) The Vedic Gods
The sacrifices and rituals of the Vedas involve a number of gods and goddesses. There is Indra, the warrior god who can be seen as the leader of the gods. With his band of Maruts, he defeated the demons of darkness each morning so that the sun could rise. The Vedic literature contains a number of stories about his exploits and successes. There is also the sky god Dyaus and a few goddesses, such as Aditi and Ushas.
Although the Vedas comprise the most sacred literature of Hinduism, the divine pantheon in them is essentially ignored in later Classical Hinduism. Only one god important in this period continues his significance later. This is Agni, who is the god of fire and the sacred fire itself. He continues to be worshipped in the daily rituals of each Hindu home. Every morning, an offering of clarified butter (ghee) and some grain cakes is shared communion-style between Agni (i.e., the fire) and the members of the household.
B) The Gods of Classical Hinduism
Hinduism has always had a remarkable ability to absorb new influences and ideas within its fluid structure. This is true of the gods as well. One sage observed that there were 330 million divine beings in Hinduism. But if one looks for the most important gods, the usual answer is that there are three main gods, those of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. But this answer is unsatisfactory, for Brahma--the emanation of Brahman into the realm of maya--receives little regular worship. Indeed, if we determine the importance of gods by the number of their temples, Brahma has almost none. Instead, a group of female gods appear much more important. Therefore, the following discussion will focus on Vishnu, Shiva, and the goddesses. Much of the information about these gods comes from the two epics Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as from the Puranas.
Vishnu is a mighty male god, who plays several roles for his followers. He is at once the creator of the cosmos, its sustainer, and its destroyer. His most common female consort is Lakshmi. The followers of Vishnu are called Vaishnavites. On earth he has appeared in the form of ten different avatars, i.e., forms or manifestations. Some of the avatars in which he appeared were animal, such as a fish or a boar. But the most common avatars are Krishna and Rama, forms in which he continues to be worshipped.
There are three main stages in Krishna's worldly life. First, Krishna is born in a prison where his royal parents are being held by a rival king. His father works out a scheme to enable the baby Krishna to escape to a nearby village and replace him with another child. Krishna grows up as a mischievous boy within this village of cowherds, playing tricks on his family and friends.
Second, as a youth, Krishna woos all the gopis (female cowherds) in the village with his good looks, charms, and attentions. Although Radha is his favorite, he dallies with the other gopis as well. Occasionally he even divides himself (makes copies, remember Multiplicity?) so that he can pay attention to several of the girls at once. These stories, while making good tales on the surface level, are also interpreted on a spiritual level...
Third, as an adult, Krishna regains his kingdom in northern India by killing King Kamsa, an act seen as the restoration of dharma. In the story of the Mahabharata, he then helps Arjuna (by serving as his chariot driver, and his brothers (the Pandava brothers) in a war to regain their rightful kingdom. The night before a major battle, Krishna and Arjuna have a long discussion regarding the nature of dharma and the cosmos, which is preserved within the Mahabharata as the Bhagavad Gita. At the end of the discussion, Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna as Vishnu. The exploits of Krishna are told and rehearsed in the Vishnu temples and in the annual festival of the Ras Lila.
More Concerning Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita (the Gita) was composed sometime between the 7th and the 6th centuries BC and later incorporated into the great Hindu epic Mahabharata. It stated a new path towards liberation, a new kind of asceticism at hand for any human, independent of social status. It requires neither withdrawal from social life as the Upanishads do, nor performing severe austerities as the Hatha and Raja Yoga. This explains its great success both in the East and the West. The new Yoga presented in the Gita is concerned with one's attitude of mind when performing normal social duties, and could be defined as a combination of Karma, Bhakti and Buddhi Yoga. Karma Yoga in the Gita means the performance of one's duties in a spirit of renunciation, of not being bound to its fruits, Bhakti Yoga is one's effort to bring all actions as sacrifices to Krishna, while Buddhi Yoga is a particular kind of wisdom one has to develop in understanding life. Let us analyze the way this new kind of Yoga works.
The Gita is an episode of the great epic Mahabharata, which narrates the dialogue of Arjuna, one of the five sons of the Pandava family, and the Hindu god Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu. A major battle is about to begin in which Arjuna sees himself playing a contradictory role, that of fighting against his relatives, the Kaurava family. Caught between his warrior duty and the ethical meaning of fighting against his cousins, between his social duty and the threat of karma, he chooses to not fight and to be killed rather than have his conscience loaded with the killing of his relatives. At this moment Krishna reveals himself to the distressed warrior and helps him understand the situation from a transcendental point of view. He performs a spiritual exegesis of Arjuna's situation, stating: "Not by abstaining from work can one achieve freedom from karma, nor by renunciation alone can one attain perfection". "Abstaining from work" is practically impossible according to Krishna, as "everyone is forced to act according to the tendencies (gunas) he has acquired from the modes of material nature (prakriti)". As a warrior, Arjuna must always follow his caste duties, in other words, his dharma. On this basis the Gita founds a new element in Hindu philosophy: Spiritual perfection is not attained by asceticism or abandoning action, but by giving a new meaning to action - that of detachment from its fruits, an attitude that does not feed karma and reincarnation. Krishna formulates the famous principle:
Be focused on action and not on the fruits of action. Do not become confused in attachment to the fruit of your actions and do not become confused in the desire for inaction.
Therefore, one should not withdraw from the world of social involvement but live in it detached from the fruits of actions, as "action is better than inaction" and "renunciation of all action is impossible". As a result, Krishna's command to Arjuna is: "Always act with detachment to the fruits of actions. The one who is acting without attachment attains God". This is Karma Yoga, the path of attaining liberation through accomplishing one's normal duties with a totally detached attitude toward personal benefit. In his given context, Arjuna has to fight no matter who is going to die on the battlefield.
There is also a new meaning for sacrifice and Bhakti Yoga. Written at the time when the authority of the Vedas has heavily decreased, the Gita states a hierarchy in the value of different kinds of sacrifice, with the lowest being the Vedic sacrifice, brought to a god in order to get personal favors, the next being the inner sacrifice of Raja Yoga (that of breathing; of the mind and senses; and that of empirical knowledge) and the best being that of detached action. Acting like this, one brings his actions as sacrifices to Krishna and therefore they do not generate karmic seeds anymore:
Consider all your acts as acts of devotion to me, whether eating, offering, giving away, performing austerities. Perform them as an offering to me. In this way you will be free from karma, you will be liberated and you will come to me.
According to this new understanding of Bhakti Yoga, there is no need for any kind of material sacrifices, rituals or other kind of performances. Act only in a worshipping attitude toward Krishna, as if all acts are dedicated to him. This particular mindset in judging particular situations in life is called Buddhi Yoga. Following it, one should attain liberation.
Krishna, Karma and Grace
A first inconsistency of the Gita concerns the relation between the law of karma and the grace granted by Krishna in helping his followers attain liberation. On the one hand, it seems that Krishna is sovereign over the law of karma, using it as an instrument for punishment or reward. He says: "Those who are envious and mischievous, who are the lowest among men, I perpetually cast into transmigration, into various demoniac species of life". And also: "Those who worship me and surrender all their activities unto me, being devoted to me without hesitation, engaged in devotional service and meditating unto me, I deliver them quickly from the ocean of birth and death".
On the other hand, karma seems to be a self-functioning rule that produces effects by its own power. One has to struggle alone against its drive and attain better incarnations from one existence to the next: "When the Yogi engages himself in making further progress, being washed of all karma, he achieves liberation after many, many births". Meanwhile, Krishna holds a detached position toward all humans: "I see all creatures equally disposed and I am not partial to anyone".
These two positions are not reconcilable. In trying to explain the relation between karma and the grace of Krishna, the Hindu analysts of the Gita had to choose between holding to the supremacy of Krishna and the ultimate power of karma in ruling the world. There are theistic and pantheistic interpretations (and even translations) of the Gita, indebted to one or the other alternative. The first see Krishna as a super-personal god using karma as an instrument for awakening humans from ignorance, and the second see him as a mere form of Brahman's manifestation, with no real power in controlling karma. As the two positions contradict each other and the Gita leaves enough room for both, we wonder which could actually be the relation between karma and grace.
In order to attain liberation, Arjuna is advised to strive hard to realize a detached attitude of mind, called Buddhi Yoga:
To those who are constantly devoted to serve me, I give them the Buddhi Yoga by which they can come to me. I show my mercy to them by destroying their ignorance with the lamp of knowledge.
Here it looks like Krishna burns karma by his grace only if one strives hard to deserve it. Therefore, the major role in salvation belongs to the individual who performs Buddhi Yoga. The grace granted by Krishna is far away from the meaning it got later in the prapatti devotional trend. Therefore, Krishna must be understood as a kind of meditation object rather than as a personal god who gets himself involved in one's reincarnation journey. The only grace one benefits from Krishna is receiving his advice. The rest depends on the disciple.
Dharma and Karma
In anyone's life the conditioning couple of dharma and karma is at work. The "duty" that forces Arjuna to fight is his dharma, i.e. his caste-duty as warrior. In turn, Arjuna's dharma is generated by his karma. Therefore, the real impetus of Arjuna's actions is his karma, which pushes him into action independently of his present intentions. Krishna states: "When you become confused in your false ego you say to yourself, 'I will not fight' you are misled. By your nature you must fight". This "nature" is prakriti or, more specifically, the way the three gunas influence one's mind under the influence of past karma. Therefore, Arjuna is not free to fulfill his dharma, but is compelled by his karma to act according to it. The action that "is better than inaction" is not a free decision of man; it does not follow the understanding of one's social duty, but is the way of accepting a pre-ordained scenario. Such an action is devoid of any sense of freedom, being a mere resignation to fate. The only freedom left to Arjuna is to give a certain meaning to his predetermined actions, that of sacrifices to Krishna: "Consider all your acts as acts of devotion to me, whether eating, offering, and giving away, performing austerities. Perform them as an offering to me. In this way you will be free from karma, you will be liberated and you will come to me".
Another inconsistency of the Gita is regarding the character of Krishna. According to classic Vaishnavism, Krishna is only an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu (which according to Vedanta is only a form of Brahman's manifestation). In the Gita Krishna becomes the Supreme Lord of the Universe, eternal, and the source of all existence: "I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from me". Contrary to Vedanta, Krishna becomes the source of Brahman and contrary to Vaishnavism he is the instrument of attaining fusion with Brahman. Although the intention of the Gita is to present Krishna as super-personal, he is a heterogeneous mixture of theistic, dualistic and pantheistic kinds of Ultimate Reality. He is not only the creator but also the substance of the universe. The cycle of permanent transformation between the manifested state and the unmanifested one is characteristic for Krishna too, as it was with Brahman:
At the end of an era (kalpa) all creatures disintegrate into my nature and at the beginning of another era I manifest them again. Such it is my nature (prakriti) to follow again and again the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations.
Krishna has to "follow the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations", which implies that the process is a necessity that surpasses him as personal god. He is just a detached and helpless spectator to it. Therefore it is hard to accept his dominion over creation along with the periodic manifestation of nature. Rather, we should conclude that the creation of the world is not an option for him, but a periodic duty at the end of each cosmic cycle, as was the case with the manifestations of Brahman. S. Dasgupta comments on the contradictory personal character of Krishna:
The Gita combines together different conceptions of God without feeling the necessity of reconciling the oppositions or contradictions involved in them. It does not seem to be aware of the philosophical difficulty of combining the concept of God as unmanifested, differenceless entity with the notion of Him as the super-person Who incarnates Himself on earth in the human form and behaves in the human manner. It is not aware of the difficulty that, if all good and evil should have emanated from God, and if there be ultimately no moral responsibility, and if everything in the world should have the same place in God, there is no reason why God should trouble to incarnate Himself as man, when there is a disturbance of the Vedic dharma. If God is impartial to all, and if He is absolutely unperturbed, why should He favor the man who clings to Him, and why, for his sake, overrule the world-order of events and in his favor suspend the law of karma? (S. Dasgupta, Indian Philosophy, Motile Banarsidass, 1991, vol.2, p. 533).
The demand to act in the world without attachment to the fruits of action seems itself contradictory. Could it actually be possible to act like this? How could one really perform his social duties without being attached to them? Otherwise what motivation remains for acting in the world? That of a robot, devoid of any personal input to his acts? The philosophy of the Gita itself aims at fulfilling a personal fruit - liberation from reincarnation, which is useful for nobody else than oneself. Should this fruit be treated with detachment too? Could one act detached regarding his eternal destiny? If the philosophy of detached acting cannot be valid for the major aspect of existence, how can we know it works in other respects?
On the other hand, how much could one know about his dharma, especially in a Western society, where the caste system doesn't exist? At to what extent can one be sure he is fulfilling his dharma and not a personal attachment to a certain egoistic motivation? Where is the limit between my dharma and my neighbor's? Therefore, under the cover of religion, anyone can masquerade, pretending he follows his dharma, but having no altruistic motivations at all in what he does.
When Arjuna found himself in the process of choosing between his duty as warrior and the killing of his relatives (a severe violation of Vedic morality), Krishna explained to him that he must give another meaning to traditional morality. Traditional ethical values should not be a hindrance to acting detached to the fruits of action. He argued: "The wise men who reached true knowledge see with as equally a brahman (priest), a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater".
As only the soul (atman) is immortal, Krishna argues that it is actually impossible to kill anyone: "Those who think that they can kill or those that think they can be killed are confused in the manifestations of ignorance. The infinite, immortal soul can neither kill or be killed". Therefore Arjuna is free to kill his relatives, considering them only temporary abiding forms for the eternal self, mere mortal frames. S. Dasgupta states in his commentary:
The theory of the Gita that, if actions are performed with an unattached mind, then their defects cannot touch the performer, distinctly implies that the goodness or badness of an action does not depend upon external effects of the action, but upon the inner motive of action. If there is no motive of pleasure or self-gain, then the action performed cannot bind the performer; for it is only the bond of desires and self-love that really makes an action one's own and makes one reap its good or bad fruits. Morality from this point of view becomes wholly subjective, and the special feature of the Gita is that it tends to make all actions non-moral by cutting away the bonds that connect an action with its performer (Ibid, p. 507).
The contrast with traditional morality is obvious. Its representative is another important character in the battle of Kurukshetra, Yudishthira, Arjuna's brother. He tried to expiate his sin of killing his relatives in battle through repentance, gifts, asceticism and pilgrimages. For him a bad conscience could not be cleansed by a right attitude of mind, but by compensatory acts.
Rather than a consistent philosophy, S. Dasgupta considers the Gita only a manual of conduct:
The Gita was probably written at a time when philosophical views had not definitely crystallized into hard-and-fast systems of thought, and when the distinguishing philosophical niceties, scholarly disputations, the dictates of argument, had not come into fashion. The Gita, therefore, is not to be looked upon as a properly schemed system of philosophy, but as a manual of right conduct and right perspective of things in the light of a mystical approach to God in self-resignation, devotion, friendship and humility. (p.534)
The Gita falls short of coherence and viability. A god that rules the world by the "help" of karma cannot be the super-personal embodiment of perfection. One's (mostly unknown) dharma fed by past lives' deeds cannot provide any real meaning for freedom. Acting without attachment to its results cannot be a valid solution for fulfilling one's social duty. And a morality that considers people temporary frames of the eternal self cannot grant social harmony. Therefore, it as difficult to accept the message of the Gita as a proper teaching of conduct, especially in the Western world.
The other major avatar of Vishnu is Rama, the central figure of the Ramayana. In keeping with the actions in the story, Rama (i.e., Vishnu) bears the attributes of trust, faithfulness, and strength. Along with Sita, his faithful wife, Vishnu as Rama continues to be worshipped in temples and in the annual festival of the Ram Lila.
Shiva, by contrast, has no avatars, but he has a family of wives and children. Shiva was originally seen as the destroyer, but has since added the attributes of creator (destroy to make things anew), and sustainer. In fact, the figure of the dancing Shiva who sustains the world is a common Hindu image. Shiva's worshippers are known as Shaivites. The tales of exploits are mentioned in the Ramayana, but appear much more fully in the Puranas. Shiva's primary depiction is as a meditating sadhu, but due to the attentions of Parvati, one of his wives, he also has a familial side.
The main symbol of shiva is a lingam, a phallic shaped object. This symbol is placed as the central image in a Shaivite temple and often made from valuable material, such as silver. It is usually two to three feet tall, and constitutes a focus of worship for his followers.
Shiva's "wives" are the symbols of feminine powers, called sakti. They are often worshipped within Shaivism, but can be worshipped on their own in a form of Hinduism called Saktiism. Although there are numerous female figures associated with Shiva, four stand out: Parvati, Umma, Durga, and Kali.
Parvati is the goddess of love and romance. She is young, beautiful and full of life. She represents union with Shiva, a representation that has distinct sexual overtones. Indeed, they are often depicted in the act of intercourse, the combination of their male and female (sakti) energies sustaining the universe. Parvati is also the mother of Ganesha. Although Shiva initially tried to kill Ganesha, he ultimately adopted him and the three of them are a favorite family scene.
Umma is the wife who represents motherhood. She is seen as kind, caring, nurturing, and displaying other features of motherhood.
Durga represents the attribute of justice. She rides a tiger and carries the weapons of battle. In this character, she is unafraid to kill to reestablish justice.
Kali is wild, terrible, and unpredictable, and is usually associated with death. She is usually depicted naked, wearing a necklace of human heads and a skirt of human arms. Blood drips from her sword. Death is thus connected with her activities. She is sometimes depicted dancing upon the prone form of Shiva, symbolizing the strength of wild and unpredictable power. The city of Calcutta is named after her.
Shiva also has two sons. The first, Ganesha, has the head of an elephant and is the god of overcoming obstacles, which links him to good luck and prosperity. The second, Skanda, becomes the divine warrior and thus the god of war.
The Hindu Cosmos #2: What's really there?
Although Christianity holds that God is immanent, that is usually not meant in physical terms. God is near all humans, but he is not in physical objects; God created, but he is not his creation. For example, he is not a boat nor is he in a boat.
Hinduism provides a radically different idea, one which goes against the evidences of human senses. The idea is simple: Brahman (the "creator" god) IS his creation. The cosmos is not so much a creation, but more an emanation from him. His essence lies in all created objects, including human beings. This means that the multiplicity of the cosmos--with all its gods, goddesses, humans, animals, and other beings and objects--is actually a unity; it is one divine being. The multiplicity that hides the cosmos' unity is called maya; that is the reality humans perceive with their senses everyday. The overcoming of maya to perceive true reality (Brahman) thus constitutes an important task in Hinduism.
This simple notion has a stunning ramification: the soul of each individual human being--called atman—is Brahman. The soul of each person is thus Brahman, the entirety of creation. This is a difficult concept to comprehend, for how can the "small" soul of each person be identical with the "large" god of the cosmos? But it is the comprehension of this idea that becomes a central goal in human life and in the resolution of the human problem.
The Human Problem and its Solution: The Life-Affirming View
For that part of Hinduism rooted in the Vedas which views life as good, the human problem is how to enjoy life, how to enjoy one's lives. Since the samsara system continually causes people to be reborn after their deaths, every life should be lived to maximize one's enjoyment both in the present life and in future lives.
In terms of one's present life, enjoyment comes from working towards the first three goals of life: dharma (virtue), artha (success), and kama (pleasure). Success and pleasure clearly can bring about enjoyment in-and-of-themselves, but so can the practice of virtue. The real reward for following virtue, fulfilling the duties of one's varna and jati, one's stage in life, comes in future lives. The more a person leads their life according to dharma, the greater a store of good karma they develop. Good karma leads to a higher position in rebirth, while bad karma can lead to a lower position, possibly even one below the human race (like a slug). The more virtuous a person is in the present life, the higher the will be reborn in the next. And of course, the higher one is born, the more enjoyable life will be.
The Human Problem and its Solution: The Life-Negating View
That part of Hinduism which views life as bad defines the human problem in a different way. Since life is not a good experience, many lives are definitely not pleasant. The problem therefore is how to stop living. A person could end his life, but that would only cause a rebirth. The problem is obviously how to get out of the system of samsara, how to die without being reborn.
The solution is to gain moksha, release. The simple characterization of this goal is for a person to realize the true nature of the cosmos. That is, a person must come to the understanding, with every fiber of being, that atman and Brahman are one and the same. The key is to realize this with "every fiber of being"; head knowledge does not count.
The more complex depiction of this goal is actually a fuller version of the previous one. First, recall that each person is reborn on the basis of their karma: good karma enables a higher birth, while bad karma results in a lower birth. But what if there is no karma at all? In this situation, there would be nothing attached to the individual that could determine where they would be reborn. This, in turn, would prevent rebirth and thus take the person out of the system.
How does one avoid having karma? How does one come to realize that Atman is Brahman? This comes about through the practice of one of several different forms of yoga which will be explained later.
According to the Vedic cosmogony of the golden egg (Hiranyagarbha), both gods and men have their origin in an impersonal primordial entity (Rig Veda 10,129). The Brahmana texts add the appearance of a Creator (Prajapati) from the golden egg, who created the world and humans out of his own body, by the power of his ardor. The Purushasukta hymn states that the product of the golden egg is the giant Purusha, and through his sacrifice by the gods the physical world was built, the four caste system, the animals and the duality of sexes.
Although the Vedic hymns do not clearly state what role the most worshipped gods played in the creation of man, man is responsible to them for how he lives his life. The prayers people address to Varuna, Indra, Agni or other gods denote a sinful human nature. Man constantly asks for forgiveness for the sins he does, which are either errors in performing the right religious ritual, or faults against one’s neighbor:
If we have sinned
against the man who loves us,
Have wronged a brother, a dear friend, or a comrade,
The neighbor of long standing or a stranger,
Remove from us this stain, O King Varuna.
(Rig Veda 5,85,7)
To the fire god Agni, who burns away sins through the fire ritual, people ask for forgiveness, but also for material welfare:
Agni, drive away
our sin, and shine wealth on us.
Shining bright, drive away our sin.
For good fields,
for good homes, for wealth,
we made our offerings to you.
Shining bright, drive away our sin.
(Rig Veda 1,97,1-2)
According to the hymns of the Rig Veda, man is a personal being dependent on the gods, and his destiny is eternal life in a celestial world. Here is how the worshippers of Indra express their longing for personal immortality:
Make me immortal in
where the son of Vivasvat (Yama) reigns,
Where lies heaven’s secret shrine, where
are those waters that are ever young.
For Indra, flow you on, Indu!
Make me immortal in
where movement is accordant to wish,
In the third region, the third heaven of heavens,
where the worlds are resplendent.
For Indra, flow you on, Indu!
(Rig Veda 9,113,8-9)
Yama, the god of death is sovereign over the souls of the dead and also the one who receives the offerings of the family for the benefit of the departed. Divine justice was assured by the gods Yama, Soma and Indra, not by an impersonal law such as karma. One of their functions was to cast the wicked into an eternal dark prison from which they can never escape (Rig Veda 7,104,3; 17). It is important to keep in mind that the Vedas do not consider man as a part of an impersonal Absolute, with whom he should fuse after death.
According to Vedic anthropology, the components of human nature are the physical body, asu and manas. Asu is the vital principle (different from personal attributes), and manas is the sum of psycho-mental faculties (mind, feeling and will). The belief in the preservation of the three components after death is proved by the fact that the family addressed the departed relative in the burial ritual as a unitary person:
May nothing of thy manas, nothing of the asu, nothing of the limbs, nothing of thy vital fluid, nothing of thy body here by any means be lost (Atharva Veda 18,2,24).
The departed relatives constituted a holy hierarchy. The last one deceased was commemorated individually for a year after his departure and then included in the mortuary offerings of the monthly shraddha ritual (Rig Veda 10,15,1-11). This ritual was necessary because the dead could influence toward good or bad the life of the living (Rig Veda 10,15,6). Beginning only with the Brahmana writings (after the 9th century BC), which are the first to mention a primitive idea of karma and reincarnation, did the tendency appear to abandon the idea of preservation of personhood after death. However, this was not the spirit of early Hinduism.The Unity Atman-Brahman in the Upanishads and Vedanta
At a macrocosmic level, the Upanishads state that there is an ultimate unity of the world in Brahman, the impersonal pattern equivalent to the One of the Rig Veda (10,129). In their search for a fundamental entity of human nature, something that should be the unifying principle of all psycho-mental faculties, but above their temporal fluctuations, the Hindu rishis defined the concept of atman. In the Chandogya Upanishad (5,1,1) it is stated that breath (prana) is the “oldest and the best” principle that assures the functioning of all other psycho-mental capacities. That is why from the notion of breath derived the notion atman, which came to designate the self, man’s spiritual being. Therefore atman is not the seat of personhood, or man’s soul, as it is sometimes mistakenly translated. It is a spiritual entity distinct to personhood and to the physical body.
Unlike all other manifestations of Brahman, atman is of the same ontological quality with Brahman; it does not fluctuate, it is expressionless, irreducible, eternal and pure:
The self is not this, not this. He is incomprehensible for he is never comprehended. He is indestructible for he cannot be destroyed. He is unattached for he does not attach himself. He is unfettered, he does not suffer, he is not injured (Brihadaranyaka Up. 4,2,4).
Given his condition as a product of Brahman’s manifestation, man's purpose in life is to join the returning process of all manifestations to the initial state of non-manifestation. This is possible only through disassociating the self (atman) from the corporeal and psycho-mental experience and realizing the identity between his self and Brahman. However, there is an important aspect to emphasize: Man’s return to Brahman is a concept that could raise confusion. In fact, Brahman is already present in man, both at a transcendent and an immanent level, that is, both as the absolute atman and the relative manifestations. Discerning between the two conditions is possible by gaining a deep mystical knowledge of atman: “The self is to be meditated upon, for in it all these become one. This self is the foot-trace of all this, for by it one knows all this, just as one can find again by footprints” (Brihadaranyaka Up. 1,4,7). “Meditating on the self” means getting the knowledge of essential identity with Brahman, and this knowledge is equivalent with attaining effectively the atman-Brahman identity, as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states:
This is the great unborn self who is undecaying, undying, immortal, fearless, Brahman. Verily, Brahman is fearless. He who knows this becomes the fearless Brahman (4,4,25).
However, there is the obstacle of illusion (maya) against getting this intuitive knowledge. Maya deceives man about the true nature of existence, channeling his wishes toward the phenomenal world that is ever changing. At the same time, maya strengthens the confusion of atman with the psycho-mental activity and the physical body. As a result of illusion, man grants true spiritual value to what is unstable and changing instead of knowing his eternal immutable self. This ignorance (avidya) is the cause of atman’s captivity in the world of material experience:
Just as those who do not know the field walk again and again over the hidden treasure of gold and do not find it, even so all creatures here go day after day into the Brahma-world and yet do not find it, for they are carried away by untruth (Chandogya Up. 8,3,2).
As a result of ignorance, in the spiritual world a process develops similar to the law of action and reaction that works in the physical world. This is karma, the law of action and retribution according to one’s deeds. Its origin is found in the exegesis of the benefits of sacrifice. It was thought that the same way sacrifices bring good results to the one who performs them, all his other acts need a reward too. This prevents a person from entering the celestial world after death or limits the person’s stay there, forcing one to come back in this life and reap the fruits of his deeds. As a result of karma, any action performed by man has an effect on its performer. The practical way one reaps the fruits of his deeds is reincarnation (samsara). It teaches that we live further lives as humans or, according to how badly we acted and how gross our ignorance was in detaching from the material world, as animals or plants.
The first clear mention of samsara is in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3,2,13), where it is mentioned that “one becomes good by good action, bad by bad action”. It is also stated that the reincarnation cycle is started by desire: “As is man’s desire so is his will; as is his will, so is the deed he does, whatever he does, that he attains” (4,4,5). The “desire” is that of experiencing the physical world, and consequently illusion, and “that he attains” is the fruit reaped in a further life, as a result of karma’s retribution. Karma is the direct link between desire and reincarnation, which builds a total inter-conditioning mechanism between the previous, the present and the next lives. As a result of karma’s retribution, any thought, word or deed of this life will find its reward in the next life, at the same level. In the Katha Upanishad (2,2,7) it is stated: “Some souls enter into a womb for embodiment; others enter stationary objects according to their deeds and according to their thoughts.”
An important aspect to emphasize here is the fact that reincarnation should not be understood only as solution for punishing bad deeds. Reincarnation functions independently of how good or bad actions are. It follows only the necessity imposed by karma, an impersonal and amoral law. Between atman and moral values there is no possible connection: “He (atman) does not become greater by good works or smaller by evil works (. . .) What he has done or what he has not done does not burn him” (Brihadaranyaka Up. 4,4,22). Good deeds only provide a short reward in heaven, but then the soul has to return to earth and continue its struggle. In the Mundaka Upanishad (1,2,10) is stated:
These deluded men, regarding sacrifices and works of merits as most important, do not know any other good. Having enjoyed in the high place of heaven won by good deeds, they enter again this world or a still lower one.
The Upanishads mark a transition from the point where man's condition is determined by divine personal agents (such as the Vedic gods), to the situation of being totally controlled by the impersonal law of karma. In this situation man is alone facing his destiny, having the duty to escape by his own efforts from the vicious cycle avidya-karma-samsara, an objective that is foundational to all Hindu religious systems.The Human Condition in the Samkhya and Yoga Darshanas
These two darshanas are dualistic, accepting the real status of primordial substance (prakriti) beside purusha (the equivalent of atman). None is the manifestation of the other. Purusha and prakriti have different natures and do not aim to reconstruct a unique essence, as was the case in pantheism.
Purusha, the self, is the spiritual entity that defines human existence from a transcendental point of view. It is the eternal substrata of the individual being, devoid of any attributes and relations, without beginning or end, indifferent, autonomous, immutable and perfect, above senses, intellect, time and space. All these categories belong to prakriti. Purusha can have relations only with itself. It can know only itself and contemplate itself. On the other hand, prakriti, the primordial substance, is capable of manifestation and produces all the physical and mental aspects of the world.
Not only is the physical world a product of prakriti’s manifestation, through the loss of balance of the three gunas, but also the world of psycho-mental phenomena. Sattva produces virtue, wisdom and goodness; rajas produces passion, contradiction, agitation and wickedness; and tamas is responsible for generating ignorance, confusion, indifference and depression. The psychological human states are combinations of effects produced by the three gunas. For instance, when the sattva dominates, the soul is calm and tranquil; when rajas dominates there is passion and nervousness; and with tamas in control man is inert, lazy, and ignorant.
Although there is not much known about how the initial balance between the three gunas was affected and how purusha got involved with the manifestations of prakriti, this situation is the source of all problems, the cause of purusha’s captivity in the illusion of psycho-mental activity. The confusion of the two opposite realities, the eternal purusha and the sum of psycho-mental activities, is maya, illusion. Persistence in this state is a result of ignorance (Yoga Sutra 2,24) and starts the process of karma and reincarnation. Purusha will reincarnate as many times as needed, according to the deeds performed by the individual in ignorance toward his true identity. All actions demand a fulfillment, or consummation, in the present or further lives. Samsara works the same way as in pantheism, until true knowledge about the nature of purusha is attained.
As both Hindu Tantrism and Hatha Yoga describe in a similar way man’s condition in the world, they will be viewed together.
The world and mankind appeared through the dissociation of the primordial unity of Shiva and Shakti. In the Shiva Samhita (1,92), a text that is common to both religious schools, is stated:
Out of the combination of spirit, which is Shiva, with matter, which is Shakti, and through the interaction of one with the other, all creatures were born.
The self (atman) is considered to be Shakti, who lives in the human body as a spiritual energy called kundalini. Following the pattern of pantheism, the goal to be pursued is the return of self (Shakti, corresponding to atman) in the Ultimate Reality represented by Shiva (the equivalent of Brahman). Illusion (maya), ignorance (avidya), karma and reincarnation are described in a similar way. Personhood and empirical knowledge are two main categories that produce false attachments and have to be surpassed.
The Condition in Theistic Hinduism
The main Hindu theistic schools are those which worship Vishnu (including his avatars such as Rama and Krishna), Shiva and Shakti (also in her forms as Durga or Kali). Out of the many forms of theistic Hinduism that exist in the present, we will view briefly only some aspects of Vaishnavism as it was stated by the great theistic Hindu thinkers Ramanuja and Madhva. The works of Ramanuja and Madhva represent an extraordinary contribution to Hindu spirituality, by the special way they understood the relation between man and divinity and the significance of salvation. According to them, man has a totally different nature from Vishnu, the personal god who is accepted as Ultimate Reality, and there is no impersonal atman-Brahman fusion that has to be attained.
According to Ramanuja, God’s relation to the world is similar to that existing between soul and body. As the body cannot exist separately from the soul, the existence of the universe and of individual beings depends totally on God. He conducts the souls; they cannot exist without him, but have also energies and activities of their own. The individuality of each soul (jiva) is not an illusion that has to be discarded through knowledge, but a metaphysical fact. Although they depend entirely on God, individual souls are real, unique, eternal, and possess intelligence and conscience. The main causes of their present state are ignorance (defined as the illusory idea of independence from God) and the desire for seeking material goods. The souls enter into connection with material bodies according to the karma they acquired in previous forms of existence. Karma is an instrument used by God to punish evil but also to remind humans of their true status and what they should actually seek in life. But the question of how souls first came under the power of karma is unanswered, because the cosmic process has no beginning.
For Madhva too, matter and mankind depend totally on God. The ontological differences between God, humans and matter are fundamental and eternal. However, the fact that God, souls and karma are eternal, beginningless, poses difficulties in understanding the relationship between them. On the one hand, if God didn't create souls, he cannot have any role in sustaining them, and they have no reason to be responsible to him. If one's soul is beginningless, it means it isn't created by God, which further means it isn't responsible to him. A soul can only be responsible to the one God who created it, I should think.
On the other hand, how can God and karma be reconciled? It is stated that there are three phases in the existence of a soul: 1) the dormant state; 2) the transmigration process; 3) the liberated state. God is the one who introduces the soul into the stream of transmigration so that it might discover its spiritual nature. It is stated that in the incarnated state, the physical and subtle bodies produce the illusion of independence toward God and also attachment to the physical world, perpetuating in this way the chain of samsara. As a result of their accumulated karma, God chooses to have each soul undergo the fruits of his past labors. But on what authority? Why should God be the controlling force, giving each soul what it deserves? Karma is a law that can work by itself, as it does in Samkhya, so it doesn't require a god. The soul (purusha) in Samkhya is eternal and doesn't depend upon any god for its existence, transmigration and liberation. Karma operates without the need or intervention of any god. Why should the situation be different in Dvaita, as long as the souls are not created? Simply adding the fact that karma is under the sovereignty of God is an artificial and useless theory, I would think.
When the Aryans moved into northwest India, they imposed a caste system to organize the new society created by their arrival. They initially put together a hierarchy of four varnas (castes), which later was expanded to include a fifth category. The caste system initially served to maintain rigid social boundaries between the invaders and the previous inhabitants. Over the generations, the origins were forgotten and the system became the stratification of a single society.
The four original varnas were actually put together as three plus one. The top three varnas were the invaders, while the one on the bottom consisted of the Dravidian inhabitants. The four varnas are called:
Priests and religious officials
Twice-born, Aryan Varnas
Rulers and warriors
Farmers, merchants, traders, and craftsmen
Not Twice-born, Non-Aryan
Servants of upper castes and peasants
People are born into the caste of their parents. There is no mobility across caste lines during one's lifetime. Each varna is divided into a number of sub-castes, each of which is called a jati. Just as the varnas provide a social hierarchy in society at large, the different jatis provide a social hierarchy within a varna.
This system of varnas and jatis serves two important functions. First, it assigns occupations. The varna and jati to which one belongs is usually identified with an occupation. Within the Vaishyas, for instance, there are jatis of bakers, sheep herders, metal workers, and so on.
Second, the system separates the members of the different the varnas and jatis by a complex system of purity and impurity. The higher a varna or jati in the system, the higher a level of purity they must maintain. The lower, the more likely they are to transmit impurity. These purity restrictions appear most frequently in four areas: marriage, drink, food, and touch. Marriage is possible only between members of jatis closely related in the hierarchy. A mere touch--if a shudra should accidentally brush against a Brahmin--can require the Brahmin to undergo extensive rites of purification.
The top three varnas have a status that excludes the fourth; this is the status of being "Twice-born." This means that the religion described in the Vedas applies to them only. The designation "twice-born" refers to the rite of initiation that the members of this caste go through upon reaching maturity. This rite brings them into the religion; they are reborn as a Hindu and not just as a caste member. The shudras, therefore, are excluded from worship in the Vedic religion, and are not even permitted to hear the Vedas read out-loud. They have their own priests and religious rites.
When the Aryans moved across India from their foothold in the northwest, they conquered yet more people. To place the newly conquered groups into their society, the Aryans created a new caste. However poorly off the shudras were at the bottom of the caste system, the members of the new category were even worse off, for the new caste was placed below the shudras. In fact, the Untouchables, as the new caste was called, were put outside the caste system altogether; they were outcastes. The purity regulations were such that not even the shudras would relate to them, and they were assigned the worst occupations, such as latrine cleaners, leather tanners, and so on. Thus the final picture of the caste system looks like this:
Priests and religious officials
Rulers and warriors
Farmers, merchants, traders, and craftsmen
Servants of upper castes and peasants
The dirtiest jobs: latrine cleaners, etc.
The caste system has been remarkably stable in India for over two millennia; it is only since the modern, independent state of India was formed that the system has come under any scrutiny at all. (It is presently outlawed, but many of the practices and attitudes remain ingrained in Hindu society.) The reason for this stability is twofold. First, Hindu rules for social behavior expect one to fulfill the requirements of their caste. Second, in the system of samsara and reincarnation that governs the cosmos; rebellion against caste expectations will result in a lower rebirth in the next life.
Time and Worship
In Hinduism, time follows the life of Brahma. The age of the world is reckoned in terms of one day in the life of Brahma, which is equivalent to 4,320,000,000 years. This period of time is divided four yugas, which are reckoned in multiples of 432,000,000 years. Together these four yugas are called the Great Cycle. The world is now in the fourth and most degenerate stage, the Kali Yuga, which started in 3102 bce.
The annual calendar is lunar. It is regularly adjusted to retain a rough equivalence with the solar year by adding an extra month. The numbering of the years goes according to two different systems called Vikram Samvant and Saka. The Vikram Samvant is more widely used.
It is important to note that popular Hinduism holds that certain times are better for important events (marriage, business ventures, religious rites, etc.) than others. These times are different for different people and are calculated through a complex system based on the Vedas, the movements of the stars and planets, and the moon. In fact, each change in the moon's phase brings in a new moment. This is often carefully worked out.
Daily worship in Hinduism usually takes place in three different places: in the home, in a temple, and/or at a street-side or road-side shrine.
The home of a religiously observant Hindu is the location of two types of worship. First, there is the practice of rites that are probably older than the Vedas themselves. At dawn, the householder and his wife rise, purify themselves with a bath--usually in a temple pool or a river if one is available--and then make an offering to the fire-god Agni in their household fire. The man may then turn towards the rising sun and say a mantra to the sun-god Savatar, asking for blessing and understanding. A similar sequence of activities will take place in the evening.
Second, most Hindu households have a small shrine to the gods important to that house. It may have a small statue of Krishna or a picture of Shiva or Durga. If the householder has a guru, a photo of the guru will appear, to remind the worshipper of the guru's teachings. This shrine will be the focus of household puja, i.e., worship. Offerings of food or drink may be laid before the statues, mantras and prayers may be said, and so on.
A nearby temple to a god or goddess is usually the focus of regular puja (i.e., worship). While a local temple may do for everyday worship, a grander cathedral-like, temple may be visited on special occasions.
Offerings of meals, money, flower, whatever, may be brought by the devotee. Once the god has taken his part of the sacrifice, the devotee may share in some of the now-blessed food (called prasad). The worshipper may also say mantras, or listen to the priests chant, sing, or read from the sacred texts.
Within the temple, the god (such as Vishnu as Rama, or Ganesha) or goddess (perhaps Kali) will be treated as royalty--living royalty to be exact. The statue will be bathed and dressed, sometimes with sumptuous clothes for "holding court" other times with pajamas for sleeping. Meals and other gifts will be regularly given. During the god's or goddess' festival, the statue will be paraded through the streets. While some of this may seem ridiculous to Western sensibilities, these actions help the worshippers view the divine being as immediately present. A mere statue does not need any special care, a statue revealing the divine presence does.
Small shrines to Hindu gods and goddesses, both major and minor, stand on road sides in the country and on the streets in cities. They may be permanently fixed and unattended, or on a cart and moved around by an attendant. During the day, as people pass by, they may stop, offer a short prayer or mantra, and perhaps leave a small offering in gratitude for some blessing.
Hindu festivals are based on the lunar calendar. In modern India, there are sixteen officially recognized holidays (when businesses close), although there are many more holidays. Most festivals are annual, but some happen on a longer cycle. The festival of Kumbha Mela, when millions of Hindus gather at the confluence of the Ganges and Jumna rivers takes place once every twelve years.
Of the annual festivals, the two-day rites of Holi mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring. This celebration is linked to Krishna whose exploits with the gopis are re-enacted. It is a time of gaiety, joy, and hope for nature's rebirth.
In late summer, Krishna's birthday is celebrated at the Janmashtami.
Shortly afterwards, Ganesha is honored with the festival of Ganesh Charurti.
Sometimes festivals that happen on the same day will be given different interpretations depending on whether the worshippers follow Shiva, Vishnu or the Sakti. In late September or early October, Shaivites and Saktites will celebrate the Durga Puja, while Vaishnavites will take part in the Dussehra, which celebrates Vishnu and his exploits as Rama in the Ramayana (and don't forget Hanuman!). Similarly, the Divali, which is the festival of lights, is celebrated either as the return of Rama from exile or as the puja of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune.
Hinduism recognizes four main stages of life. Like the goals of life, these can be divided into three plus one, with the three deriving from the "life is good" strand of Hinduism, and the one deriving from the "life is bad" strand. The first three are the student, the householder, and the retired person, while the fourth is the ascetic (also known as a sannyasin or a sadhu).
The three stages of life that come from the life-affirming, Vedic side of Hinduism were initially designed with the caste system in mind. In particular, they were set up to apply to members of the three Twice-Born varnas: the Brahmin, the Kshatriya and the Vaishya. Other castes and jatis have adopted them in different ways, transforming them to meet their needs.
The first stage is that of the student, during which a boy traditionally is expected to go to live and study with a teacher (a guru) for several years. Today only a few Brahmin families follow this tradition to its full extent. A boy enters into student-hood at adolescence (ages 8-12), and spends most of his maturing years studying. For Brahmins, this would mean studying and memorizing large portions of the Vedas and accompanying texts, along with training in the various rituals. Members of all castes learn how set up and maintain their own household worship, centered on the holy fire of Agni.
For the Twice-Born castes, the ritual (samskara) of becoming a student contains great significance, for it is the means by which a person becomes reborn. This ceremony--often called the thread ceremony because of the red thread which the initiate wears over his left shoulder--symbolizes the entrance of the boy into Hinduism. Originally, it was at this point that the initiate was first permitted to hear the words of the sacred Vedas and learned his first mantra. Once initiated, the boy became, like other Twice-Born males, responsible for maintaining the balance of the cosmos.
After student-hood, the next stage of life is that of householder, usually entered into through an elaborate, many-day marriage ceremony. It is during this stage that a man has children (with his wife), forms a family, establishes himself in a career or job, and strives to be an active member of his community. He will establish his own household, with its own worship. With his wife, the householder is now responsible for ensuring that the rituals of domestic life are carried out at their proper times and in the proper manner. This stage is important because it carries the responsibilities of looking after and supporting peoples at all other stages, both male and female.
The third stage of life is that of retirement. When a man reaches old age and his son has a family and is ready to take over the leadership of the household, he and his wife will retire. On the one hand, their household responsibilities--both religious and secular--diminish significantly. On the other hand, they become free to contemplate the meaning of their coming death and rebirth. They may choose to withdraw into a secluded area--perhaps become a "hermit"-- or they may involve themselves in more active worship (bakti) of Hinduism's pantheon of gods and goddesses.
Each of these three stages is preceded by a samskara, a ritual that brings a person from the previous stage of life into the new one. While these are the most important stages of life, brought on by the most elaborate samskaras, there are many other samskaras performed during one's life. Traditionally, a person may undergo anywhere from 10 to 18, even up to 40, samskaras during his lifetime. The majority of these will be performed before a baby is even six months old, with many of them done before birth. These are believed to help a person leave their previous life behind and to enter successfully into their new one. Each samskara advances a person further along the path of life, initiating them into a new aspect or stage.
It is apparent that the three main stages of life are designed for males and do not include women. Traditional Hinduism, like many religions, places women in a dependent role. In the traditional view, women always need the protection of a responsible male, whether father, husband or adult son. This does not mean that women have no religious life. On the contrary, women are actively involved in worship, both in support of their family and on their own. On the one hand, a married woman is responsible for carrying out many of the domestic rites along with her husband. Many rituals cannot be performed with her involvement or in some instances leadership. On the other hand, women are often active practioners of forms of bakhti yoga, that is, the worship of the gods and goddesses. In the modern period, this subordination has begun to change and women have gained more active roles in public life. Indira Ghandi, for instance, was a Prime Minister of India for many years (women have yet to gain a corresponding position in the United States).
The fourth stage of life breaks the progression of the other three; it is that of the ascetic, who in Hinduism are called the sadhu or the sannyasin. This is a rejection of life and all that it means in exchange for a search to attain moksha, that is, release from the cycle of samsara. A person may enter into this stage of life at any time.
The rejection of life, especially as defined by the life-affirming strand of Hinduism, is complete. It requires rejection of the household duties and responsibilities of all stages of life. It also requires the rejection of the religious beliefs. Indeed, the ceremony making one a sannyasin includes the burning of copies of the Vedas, a symbolic rejection even of one's role in maintaining the cosmos, and of one's red thread, the symbol of their status as Twice-Born. It is such a powerful rejection that a person even loses their caste affiliation; even a shudra can become a sannyasin and lose their low-caste identity.
The sannyasins become wandering hermits, living life without any shelter or possessions. They eat when they can acquire food, but never enter into any work to acquire it; it must be given or found. They become holy men, seeking spiritual enlightenment and power, striving to achieve the true wisdom of the cosmos. Some may become kind and give blessings to those around them, while others may become wrathful and powerful and wield magic against those who cross them.
Classic Hinduism promotes four different goals. Like other aspects of Hinduism, the goals are split between those emphasized by the "life is good" perspective and those emphasized by the "life is bad" perspective. The three life-affirming goals are Dharma (virtue), Artha (success) and Kama (pleasure), while the life-negating goal is that of moksha (release).
The three "life is good" goals can be pursued all at once or at different times in one's life. Some goals seem more suited to different stages of life than others.
Dharma (Dharma Shastra) is the practice of virtue, the living of an ethical and ritually correct life. The definition of what is virtuous, however, varies, depending on a person's caste and jati membership. The primary virtue is to fulfill the duties assigned to one's caste. Thus a Brahmin should offer sacrifices and do them to the best of his ability, while a Vaishya silversmith should create his plates and bowls as strong and beautiful as possible. If either person tried to do the other's job, that would be seen as violating their caste duty. The dharma a person is expected to fulfill also varies depending on their stage of life. A student, for instance, becomes virtuous through a different set of actions than a householder.
Dharma is elaborate. Its principal aim is to preserve the world order (Rta), by maintaining its overall structure, basic values and innate harmony. According to Hinduism, one of the main functions of the Divinities is to protect the creation by maintaining the Dharma in all the worlds. The rules of Dharma are not universal. They are bound to time and space and are subject to perennial change. They are also not applicable to all human beings or the entire creation. At the highest level of human or divine existence, when man transcends his animal nature and the qualities of the three gunas, there are actually no laws to govern him, because in the transcendental planes there are no bounds, only awareness, understanding and an overwhelming sense of love and understanding. In truth, he governs himself, much like God, out of a sense of self responsibility and lack of desires.
The Dharama Shastras were meant for people who were driven by the illusory world, who would engage in desire oriented actions and needed to be regulated for the purpose of maintaining or preserving the moral, social and political order. They were composed to emphasize the importance of leading a virtuous and divine oriented life on earth and remain on the side of God for a better tomorrow and harmonious today. Unlike the Vedas which are believed to be divine in origin, the Dharma Shastras represented the collective wisdom of intellectuals, scholars, politicians and law makers who created them. Some of them had their own reasons to support a belief system that ensured the continuation of their family names and privileges and at the same time kept the lower castes and the women at the bottom of the oppressive, feudal and religious ladder.
In the name of God and religion, in a society that believed in the laws of karma and the possibility of a better life through reincarnation, the Dharma Shastras attempted to achieve this complicated task on an ongoing basis. They laid down elaborate rules to deny a vast majority of the people the right to live a decent life and made provisions at the same time for the continuation of a system which, from present day values, was extremely racial and arrogantly inhumane. Interestingly, although a vast majority of the people was not aware of these law books, because they were not allowed to read and study, they somehow remained subservient to these laws and accepted them as their lot. In this regard they were like the medieval farmers of Russia or Europe, who willingly subjected themselves to the feudal structure and the laws of the Church that perpetrated it.
Some of the laws prescribed in the Dharama Sutras are bound to offend the sensibilities and sentiments of Americans and many Christians, who have been brought upon the values of equality, individual liberty and social justice. Many verses in these scriptures stand in contrast to these fundamental values that define many democratic societies today and characterize the free world. Readers should consider these scriptures from an academic or historical point of view to understand the times they represent. To consider them as the authoritative text books of present day moral or social values of Hinduism would wrong. They belong to a particular time frame and represent certain social and moral values most of which are irrelevant today.
Artha is the working for and achieving of success, in terms of both wealth and power. This means it is religiously good to be a successful businessman. It also means that it is religiously good to serve on the city council, to be active in civic organizations, or even to become a politician. This kind of success is most easily achieved at the householder stage of life.
Kama is pleasure, usually understood as aesthetic pleasure. This includes: the producing and enjoyment of art, music, dance, drama, literature, poetry, and sex. (The "Kama Sutra," which may be one of the best known Hindu texts in the West, is about the aesthetic pleasure of men and women; it discusses beauty, music, dance and sexual activity.) It is religiously praiseworthy to take part, to support, or to appreciate any form of pleasure. This should be done, of course, within the realm of dharma (i.e., in a virtuous manner).
"life is bad" goal is moksha. It is the striving for release from
life (since, after all, it is bad). To achieve this, a person must turn
back on life and strive to live without the things that make up life.
it requires the turning away from the first three goals, of rejecting
comforts, pleasure, education, and so on. It also requires one to
ascetic, a hermit, and to spend one's time in contemplation. This
should be directed towards overcoming the maya that clouds human
reality and towards realizing the true nature of the cosmos and one's
it (that Atman and Brahman are one).
In Hinduism, there are four main ways to reach towards the divine reality, whether the ultimate goal is a better life, union with the divine, or a release from life. The ways are called yoga, a word similar to the English term "yoke." Each yoga puts on its followers a set of actions that help lead the practitioner towards their goal. The yogas are: Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, and Raja yoga. The first three are discussed in the Bhagavad Gita, while the fourth derives initially from the Yoga Sutra. These are all spiritual approaches to understanding the divine world; what we in the west generally term yoga--forms of physical exercise and control of the body--is properly known as Hatha yoga. It has no spiritual impact.
Janana means knowledge and this yoga is the path to understanding ultimate reality through knowledge. Of course, the reality the yogi (a practitioner of yoga) is trying to comprehend is the identity of Atman (one's own soul) with Brahman (the creator and essence of the cosmos). And comprehension of this identity must happen not just at the intellectual level, but with every fiber of a person's being.
There are three main steps in Jnana yoga. The first is learning. The initiate is taught about the identity of atman and Brahman through instruction, study of holy writings, and so on. Once the intellectual understanding of the concept has been achieved, the yogi moves to the next level.
The second step is that of thinking. The yogi is taught to embody the teaching he has received. The teacher often encourages this process, for example, by pushing the student to think about the "I," "me," and "my" that always crop up in a person's speech. The goal of this stage is to bring the yogi to the ability to separate his/her eternal soul (the Self) from the temporary self within which it is encased.
The third step is to differentiate oneself from oneself. In other words, once it is understood that each individual's eternal atman is enclosed in a temporary body of maya, the goal is to relocate one's identity in the atman, rather than in the body and its temporary accompanying emotions and thoughts. In the initial stages of this process, the yogi begins to think of themselves in the third person. Rather than thinking, "I am taking a bath," they think, "John is taking a bath." A person thus becomes an observer of their temporary body, rather than its motivator. The ultimate aim is complete detachment of the eternal Self from the temporary one. Once this is achieved, then there is nothing that separates the Self (the atman) from Brahman.
This is the path of devotion to a god, or, more precisely, the path of the love of a god. A person thus centers on a god or goddess (such as Vishnu, Parvati, Ganesha) and expresses their love for him or her. The goal is not to just say "I love Shiva" or "I love Kali" or just to perform acts of love and worship, but to actually love them, to devote oneself to them as if they were a lover, a parent or one's child.
Bhakti takes many forms. It can be the constant repetition of the god's/goddess' name throughout the day to enhance a person's awareness of the divine being's role in life. It can be the giving of gifts to the god at his temple, and the participation in worship of the god there. It can be pilgrimage to a site sacred to the goddess' life. The goal is thus not identity or unity, but nearness. Lovers are not one person; they are two people whose lives are intertwined. So too it is with the worshipper and their god.
This yoga aims to reverse the natural order workings of karma. Karma is generated by every action a person performs during their lives, and, it is the working out of karma that requires rebirth after death. So, Karma Yoga reasons, if a person could live without generating karma, then there would be nothing to cause rebirth.
This task is accomplished by detachment, namely, the detachment of one's Self (one's atman) from one's actions. This is done by removing all involvement, including one's intent, from their activity. This can be accomplished either through the knowledge of one's true Self (like Jnana yoga) or by putting all the actions onto one's god (following a path similar to Bhakti yoga).
Raja means "royal," so this is the royal yoga. This is essentially the path of meditation, that is, of being able to remove one's own consciousness from its awareness of this world of maya and to focus only on the ultimate reality of the cosmos' unity. This is quite difficult to accomplish, and there are eight stages that are designed as the simplest path. The difficulty is to overcome one's awareness first of their surroundings, and then of their own body and its activities (such as breathing and the pumping of the heart). Once this is accomplished then a person must take control of their mind and to focus it on one thing only, Brahman. The goal is achieved when through concentration and meditation, all separateness of the world of maya disappears and the unity of atman and Brahman appears.
Timeline for Hinduism
Please note: Read the layers from bottom to top
Mahatma Ghandi dies (1948)
India gains independence from Great Britain (1947) map
Great Britain takes over India (1858)
Mughal Dynasty in India (Moslem) (1526-1707) map
Sikhism founded (~1500)
Delhi Sultanate rule of India (Moslem) (1210-1526) map
Late Puranas composed (800-1200)
Early Puranas composed (300-800 ce)
Laws of Manu composed (100 ce)
Ramayana composed (200-100 bce)
Ashoka, Indian King who favors Buddhism (272-236 bce)
Mahabharata & Bhagavad Gita composed (400-100 bce) map
Alexander the Great invades NW India (327 bce)
Buddha's death (483 bce)
Hindu interaction with Jainism and Buddhism (500-200 bce)
Beginning of "Life is Bad" Worldview.
Upanishads composed (700-300 bce)
Brahmanas composed (1000-500 bce)
Vedas composed (1200-900 bce)
Aryan tribes migrate into Northwest India (1500-1200 bce)
Beginning of "Life is Good" Worldview and Caste System
Religious items include temples with large water pools, fertility statues, and lingam figures.
The plural term Vedas has two related meanings in Hinduism. First, it refers to the four Veda texts: the Rig Veda, the Yajur Veda, the Sama Veda and the Atharva Veda. Second, "Vedas" may also belong to the literature of the Vedic period which is based upon the four Vedas; the term thus includes the Brahmanas, which are commentaries on each Veda, and the Upanishads, which are philosophical treatises based upon them. Sometimes the term may also include the Sutras, books which are rules and regulation codified according to different schools, even though these texts were written later in the period of Classical Hinduism.
The Vedas proper were composed and then transmitted orally beginning around 1400 bce and probably recorded in writing about 1000. The first three Vedas are collections of material for sacrifices. The Rig Veda contains 1028 hymns to the various gods (Indra, Agni, Soma, Rudra, etc.) which a priest recited loudly during a sacrifice to attract the god's attention to it. Many of the Rig Veda's verses are mantras, vocalizations that encapsulate and resonate the nature of Brahman. The Yajur Veda contains mantras and other instructions for the priest(s) who actually perform the sacrifice. And the Sama Veda adapts mantras and verses from the Rig Veda to music which is then sung during the sacrifice. The Atharva Veda differs from the first three in that it does not relate to sacrifice and also contains spells and magic rites.
The contents of the Vedas should make it clear that these are texts for the Brahmins. It is this varna who monopolized the Vedas and used them as the basis for education, requiring students to memorize large amounts of them. Until recently, it was forbidden for anyone not of the Twice-born castes even to hear the Vedas recited.
The Vedas (including the Brahmanas and Upanishads) constitute the sacred texts of Hinduism. Hinduism considers these texts to be sruti, a word which means "heard." The Vedas were written down by rishis (holy men who are the mythical founders of Hinduism) who "heard" them during deep meditation. Thus, the texts come neither from gods nor men, but from the nature of the cosmos itself.
The Brahmanas were composed between 1000 and 700 bce as commentaries on the four Vedas. As such, each Brahmana is attached to a specific Veda. As commentaries, they explicate matters needing explanation. For example, they discuss the meaning of mantras, specify how to perform certain sacrificial actions only briefly mentioned, and describe the impact the sacrifices have on the eternal world. In short, they function as a manual teaching the proper use of the material in the Veda to which it belongs.
The Upanishads are as different and diverse as the Vedas to which they belong. Composed between roughly 700 and 300 bce, they delve into discussions of the deep inner meaning of their respective Vedas. Thus, discussion can range from the meaning of the sacrificial altar as the center of the world to the priestly singer's role and the meter he sings in. If there is anything that unifies the Upanishads, it is their continual discussion of atman, Brahman and their relationship--a theme which becomes important in Classical Hinduism.
This literature is revered but is not considered holy in the same way as the Vedas. They are termed smriti, i.e., "remembered." This means that they are traditional and originally passed on orally. They have a human rather than a divine origin.
Sutra has two meanings: a short pithy saying (like a proverb), and a collection of such sayings. The Sutras, as the latter, are a collection of the former. In this way they organize many of the ideas of the Vedas into a series of rules and regulations than can be practiced. The Sutras came at the end of the Vedic literature and each one is usually derived from a Veda and its commentary literature. One of the most famous sutras in the West is that rulebook of sexual pleasure, the Kama Sutra.
The Mahabharata centers on the five Pandava brothers, who are sons of a king whose kingdom lies on the southern slopes of the Himalayas. In a fit of passion, the eldest brother gambles away the kingdom and his brothers in a dice game. The rest of the story is about the struggles and battles of the brothers to gain back their kingdom. The greatest warrior of the five brothers is Arjuna. On the night before a major battle, he has doubts about the rightness of killing the enemy, who are his cousins. At that point, his charioteer, Krishna (who is an avatar of Vishnu), engages him in a discussion about performing one's duty (dharma), and about the paths to a better life, namely, devotion (bhakti yoga), action (karma yoga), and knowledge (jnana yoga), with an emphasis on Karma Yoga. This discussion is known as the Bhagavad Gita and it forms the basis of much popular Hinduism, including strengthening worship (bhakti) and devotion.
Sample of the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 13)--
The Supreme Lord said: O Arjuna, this body (the miniature universe) may be called the field or creation. One who knows the creation is called the creator by the seers of truth. (13.01)
Know Me to be the creator of all creation, O Arjuna. The true understanding of both the creator and the creation is considered by Me to be the transcendental or metaphysical knowledge. (13.02)
What the creation is, what it is like, what its transformations are, where the source is, who that creator is, and what His powers are, hear all these from Me in brief. (13.03)
The sages have described Him in many ways, in various Vedic hymns, and also in the conclusive and convincing verses of the Brahmasutra. (13.04)
The five basic elements, the "I" consciousness or ego, the intellect, the unmanifest Prakriti, the ten senses, the mind, and the five sense objects; (See also 7.04) (13.05)
Desire, hatred, pleasure, pain, the physical body, consciousness, and resolve. Thus the field (the creation or body) has been briefly described with its transformations. (13.06)
Humility, modesty, nonviolence, forbearance, honesty, service to guru, purity (of thought, word, and deed), steadfastness, self-control; and (13.07)
Aversion towards sense objects, absence of ego, constant reflection on the agony and suffering inherent in birth, old age, disease, and death. (13.08)
Detachment, non-fondness with son, wife, and home; unfailing equanimity upon attainment of the desirable and the undesirable; and (13.09)
Unswerving devotion to Me by the yoga of exclusivity, love for solitude, distaste for social gossips; and (13.10)
Steadfastness in knowledge of the Supreme Spirit, and the perception of (the omnipresent God as) the object of true knowledge is called knowledge; what is contrary to this is ignorance. (13.11)
I shall fully describe the object of knowledge, knowing which one attains immortality. The beginningless Supreme Brahman is said to be neither Sat nor Asat. (See also 9.19) (13.12)
Having hands and feet everywhere; having eyes, head, and face everywhere; having ears everywhere; the creator exists in the creation by pervading everything. (13.13)
He is the perceiver of all sense objects without the senses; unattached, yet the sustainer of all; devoid of the Gunas, yet the enjoyer of the Gunas. (13.14)
He is inside as well as outside all beings, animate and inanimate. He is incomprehensible because of His subtlety. He is very near as well as far away. (13.15)
Undivided, yet appears as if divided in beings; He, the object of knowledge, is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of (all) beings. (13.16)
The light of all lights, He is said to be beyond darkness. He is the knowledge, the object of knowledge, and seated in the hearts of all beings, He is to be realized by the knowledge. (13.17)
Thus the creation as well as the knowledge and the object of knowledge have been briefly described. Understanding this, My devotee attains Me. (13.18)
Know that Prakriti and Purusha are both beginningless; and also know that all manifestations and Gunas arise from the Prakriti. (13.19)
The Prakriti is said to be the cause of production of physical body and organs (of perception and action). The Purusha (or the consciousness) is said to be the cause of experiencing pleasures and pains. (13.20)
The Purusha associating with Prakriti (or matter), enjoys the Gunas of Prakriti. Attachment to the Gunas (due to ignorance caused by previous Karma) is the cause of the birth of Jeevaatma in good and evil wombs. (13.21) (Jeevaatma or Jeeva is defined as Atma accompanied by the subtle (or astral) body consisting of the six sensory faculties and vital forces; the living entity; the individual soul enshrined in the physical body.)
The Supreme Spirit in the body is also called the witness, the guide, the supporter, the enjoyer, and the great Lord or Paramaatma. (13.22)
They who truly understand Purusha and Prakriti with its Gunas are not born again regardless of their mode of life. (13.23)
Some perceive God in the heart by the intellect through meditation; others by the yoga of knowledge; and others by the yoga of work (or Karma-yoga). (13.24)
Some, however, do not understand Brahman, but having heard (of it) from others, take to worship. They also transcend death by their firm faith to what they have heard. (13.25)
Whatever is born, animate or inanimate, know them to be (born) from the union of the field (or Prakriti) and the field knower (or Purusha), O Arjuna. (See also 7.06) (13.26)
The one who sees the imperishable Supreme Lord dwelling equally within all perishable beings truly sees. (13.27)
Seeing the same Lord existing in every being, one does not injure the other self and thereupon attains the Supreme goal. (13.28)
Those who perceive that all works are done by the (Gunas of) Prakriti alone, and thus they are not the doer, they truly understand. (See also 3.27, 5.09, and 14.19) (13.29)
When one perceives diverse variety of beings resting in One and spreading out from That alone, then one attains Brahman. (13.30)
The imperishable Supreme Self, being beginningless and without Gunas, though dwelling in the body (as Atma) neither does anything nor gets tainted, O Arjuna. (13.31)
As the all-pervading ether is not tainted because of its subtlety, similarly the Self, seated in everybody, is not tainted. (13.32)
O Arjuna, just as one sun illuminates this entire world, similarly the creator illumines (or gives life to) the entire creation. (13.33)
They, who understand the difference between the creation (or the body) and the creator (or the Atma) and know the technique of liberation (of Jeeva) from the trap of Maya with the help of knowledge, attain the Supreme. (13.34)
The Ramayana, composed around 200 bce, is the story of Rama and his wife Sita. Rama is heir apparent to his father, the King of Ayodhya. He learns of the beautiful, royal Sita of a neighboring kingdom and wins her hand in marriage by performing the mighty feat of stringing Shiva's bow. Due to palace intrigue at home, however, Rama is sent into exile as a sadhu for 14 years. Sita, ever faithful, chooses to accompany him. They have many adventures, the greatest of which happens when Sita is kidnapped by the demon king Ravana, who disappears with her to his kingdom of Lanka (Sri Lanka). Rama enlists the help of the monkeys, especially their champion Hanuman. Hanuman finds Sita, and enlisting the assistance of a monkey army, helps Rama regain Sita. During her captivity, Sita spurned all Ravana's advances, quoting the Vedas and lecturing him on dharma. Rama is ultimately returned to his kingship in Ayodhya, but the people doubt Sita's faithfullness, since she was a captive for more than a year. In the end, she called upon the earth goddess to bear witness and she is swallowed up forever.
Each of the main figures of the story represents an ideal type in Bhakti. Rama is the strong, active, hero, while Sita is the faithful, loyal, beautiful wife. Once it is realized that Rama is the incarnation of Vishnu and Sita is the incarnation of his consort Lakshmi, then Hanuman becomes the representation of an ideal follower, one who is totally devoted to the god.
If the Vedic literature was composed by and for the use of the Brahmin caste and thus remained an elite and esoteric literature, then the Puranas and their stories were designed for and used by the average Hindu. The eighteen major Puranas are collections of stories about the gods and their activities. The earliest were composed around 400 ce, but others, especially some minor ones, were created a millennium later. Thus the Puranas span the period from Classical Hinduism into Medieval Hinduism. They tend to emphasize two points: bhakti (devotion to a god) and dharma (doing one's personal and social duty). The Puranas can be categorized into three groups: those dealing with the stories of Brahma, those concerning Vishnu (and his avatars and consort(s)), and those about Shiva and the goddesses associated with him.The Ultimate Reality in Hinduism
Hinduism is not a unitary religion, but a multitude of religious and philosophical trends. Three main patterns can be identified among them. First, there is henotheism, the religion of the ancient Vedas and later Vaishnavism and Shaivism, which states that many gods exist, but one of them is more important than the others. Second, there is pantheism, the perspective brought by the Upanishads and later Vedanta, which considers Ultimate Reality to be an impersonal transcendent being. Third, there are the Samkhya and the Yoga darshana of Patanjali that admit two ultimate realities. I will briefly describe them following an approximate chronological order.
The oldest sacred scriptures of Hinduism are the four Vedas (Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Veda). They are four collections of hymns (Samhita) describing deities, their works and the praises that must be addressed to them in religious rituals. Each of the four collections of Vedic hymns is associated with three other kinds of Vedic literature - the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. Together they represent the most sacred religious literature (Shruti) of Hinduism. (Remember that throughout the content of this paper by “Vedas” I mean only the four collections of hymns, and not the whole body of Vedic literature.)
The hymns of the oldest Veda, the Rig Veda, are almost all praises addressed to gods. The ancient Aryans worshipped many gods, associated with the elements of nature, among which we can discern at least two important generations. The oldest supreme god, according to the Vedas, seems to be Varuna, the sustainer of creation and guardian of universal order. A hymn in the Atharva Veda proclaims:
This earth belongs
to Varuna, the King,
and the heavens, whose ends are far apart.
Both the oceans are the loins of Varuna,
and He is merged within the small water drop.
If one will go away
beyond the heavens,
still he cannot escape King Varuna;
His envoys move about here from the heavens,
and, thousand-eyed, they look upon the earth. (Atharva Veda 4,16,3-4)
A second generation of Vedic gods has Indra as the most important representative. He takes over all the functions of Varuna after saving mankind from demon Vritra's influence, the embodiment of the rough aspects of nature. Vritra had locked the waters in the sky, which caused a catastrophic drought on earth. At humans' demand, Indra consumed a large quantity of ritual drink (soma), took the lightning (vajra) shaped by god Tvashtri and, with the help of other gods, killed the demon and brought back the rain on earth (Rig Veda 10,113). That is why he is praised in the hymns:
Adorable Indra, our
Vritra-slayer and furtherer of our highest aims,
May he be our protector from the end,
from the middle, from behind, and from in front.
Lead us to a free
world, wise one,
where lie divine luster, sunlight, and security.
Valiant are the arms of thee, the powerful;
we will take to their vast shelter. (Atharva Veda 19,15,1-2)
It is important to notice that although Indra takes over the role of fertility god from Varuna, he fulfills it with much more effort than his predecessor does. Indra depends on the ritual drink soma, and consequently on the sacrifices done by people (which represents a weakness), and has to fight in order to maintain the universal order. His sovereignty over the world is not as striking as it was with Varuna. On the other hand, people appreciate him more than Varuna. They didn't understand Varuna's ways, but can influence Indra through the sacrifices and therefore get the earthly blessings they seek. Once proclaimed sovereign Lord, Indra takes over the title of maker of the universe, which he doesn't create, but rearranges after his conquest.
Two other gods of this generation, with less important roles in the Vedas, but which will play major roles in later theistic Hinduism, are Rudra (forerunner of Shiva) and Vishnu. Rudra has a dual aspect; on the one hand he is monstrous, murderous and savage; on the other hand he is benevolent, divine healer and protector of cowherds. Vishnu, too, has a minor role in the Vedas, being just one of Indra's helpers in his combat against Vritra and in building the universe. At the same time, he is an intermediary between gods and people, a role that will certainly develop in his later special position.
Along with praising the gods, there are passages in the Vedas that suggest another kind of Ultimate Reality of the universe, beyond the gods we mentioned. One of the most important Hindu cosmogonies is that of the golden egg (Hiranyagarbha), an entity that was the source of all existing beings and worlds:
At first was neither
Being nor Nonbeing.
There was not air nor yet sky beyond.
What was its wrapping? Where? In whose protection?
Was Water there, unfathomable and deep?
There was no
death then, nor yet deathlessness;
Of night or day there was not any sign.
The One breathed without breath, by its own impulse.
Other than that was nothing else at all.
there, all wrapped around by darkness,
And all was Water indiscriminate. Then
That which was hidden by the void, that One, emerging,
Stirring, through the power of ardor (tapas), came to be. (Rig Veda 10,129)
There are two important aspects to be noticed here: 1) water produced the One; and 2) the whole process was realized by the power of ardor (tapas). This idea is important because it opens the way towards the notion of One (the primordial matrix that encapsulates all existence) and also toward asceticism, the cosmic creative energy through which the unmanifested becomes manifested. Another important factor here is the preexistence of an impersonal reality (the One) against personal beings. Gods and men are said to have their origin in this primordial impersonal entity.
Considering an impersonal Ultimate Reality above the gods is a pattern that will dominate most Hindu religious explanation. The cosmogony of the golden egg is continued in the Brahmana texts in a similar fashion as in the Rig Veda, adding the appearance of a Creator (Prajapati) from the golden egg (Shatapatha Br. 11,1,6). The same way as the golden egg appears as a result of ardor, this Prajapati created the world using the power released by his ardor. His words are fulfilled as a result of ardor and the material out of which he builds the universe is his own body.
A similar view is presented in the Purushasukta hymn (Rig Veda 10,90), that can be found in a similar version in the Atharva Veda (19,6) and in the Taittiriya Aranyaka (3,12). According to this hymn, the product of the golden egg is the giant PurushaChristian Witness . By his consuming himself in the fire of creation all of the worlds came into existence, including our physical world, the four-caste system, the animals and the duality of the sexes. There is no doubt that Purusha and Prajapati are equivalent, both being produced out of that impersonal One of the Rig Veda 10,129. This passing from a personal Ultimate Reality (represented by the gods) to an impersonal One is an important feature of early Hinduism that will have major implications for later developments.
Already in the Brahmana writings (Shatapatha Brahmana 6,1,1) it is stated that the whole universe has its origin in non-existence (asat), meaning that existence must be the product of manifestation of some unmanifested potentialities. This topic is made clear in the Upanishads, which claim that the origin of any manifestation is Brahman, the One of the Vedic hymns:
As the spider moves along the thread, as small sparks come forth from the fire, even so from this Self [Brahman] come forth all breaths, all worlds, all divinities, all beings. (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2,1,20)
According to the Upanishads, the Ultimate Reality is Brahman. It (neuter gender) is at the origin of any physical, moral or spiritual activity (see also Brihadaranyaka Up. 4, 1-2; Chandogya Up. 3,18,1-6; Taittiriya Up. 2,6; 3,1). Paradoxically, Brahman has two aspects: immanent, or manifested, and transcendent, or unmanifested. For a better understanding of this concept, we can compare it to the "Big Bang" theory on the origin of the universe. The point of infinite mass out of which all celestial bodies would have originated, according to the astronomical theory, has its ideological correspondence with the unmanifested Brahman of Hindu cosmogony. However, in the manifestation of Brahman, the product is not only matter, but also living beings, gods, humans and animals. The cause of the manifestation process is Brahman's desire to be multiplied: “Let me become many, let me be born” (Taittiriya Up. 2,6,1). (However, in a pantheistic context, this is a strange and contradictory idea, because the impersonal being cannot have desires.) After the manifestation is completed, all its products tend to return to the initial state of unmanifestation, evolving from one level of manifestation to another. Then another manifestation will happen:
As from a blazing fire, sparks of like form issue forth by thousands, even so, O beloved, many kinds of beings issue forth from the immutable and they return thither too. (Mundaka Up. 2,1,1)
Similar to the day and night cycle, the transformation of Brahman between the manifested state and the unmanifested one is everlasting (Kaushitaki Up. 3, 3).
The philosophical system (darshana) that follows the pantheistic teachings of the Upanishads is called Vedanta. The most important organizers are Badarayana (4th century AD) and Shankara (9th century AD), the one who conferred to it a pure monistic character as Advaita Vedanta - "the Vedanta of pure monism".
Shankara's vision of the relation of the Absolute with the phenomenal world is reflected in an old Hindu parable, that of the rope mistakenly perceived in the dark as a snake. As the coiled rope in the dark is thought to be a snake, the same way the empirical world is mistakenly considered to have a distinct existence, independent to the Absolute, through the illusion (maya) produced by ignorance (avidya). As only the rope exists, not the snake, only Brahman has a real existence (sat) and is the true reality. The phenomenal world is real only if perceived as Brahman, as the "reality" of the snake's existence lays in the substratum that produced the confusion, namely the rope. The plurality of the phenomenal world is an illusion (maya), a veil that has to be put aside in order to perceive Brahman. The universe is not unreal, but has the same value as the snake in the parable - it produces confusion and causes man to pursue a wrong spiritual direction. All that goes beyond this vision of the world is illusion, produced by ignorance.
Shankara tried to settle the relation of the Absolute Brahman (Nirguna Brahman - the One without any definable characteristics) with the origin of the world by proclaiming two distinct points of view: the absolute (paramarthika) and the relative (vyavaharika). In an absolute sense, Brahman is above any duality and external relation; nothing real exists outside him. But from our empirical and relative point of view, Brahman is the cause of the universe we know. In fact there is no real causality; the world is only an illusory sight of Brahman, as with the rope seen as a snake. Brahman's activity in the world and among human beings is nothing but lila, divine play. In conclusion, the Vedanta of Shankara is somehow different from Upanishadic philosophy; the universe is only a phenomenal appearance (vivarta-vada) of Brahman and not his transformation (parinama-vada). From a substantial manifestation, the universe becomes only a dream (or self-forgetting) of Brahman.
According to the pantheistic view of the Upanishads and Vedanta, the gods are merely inferior manifestations of the supreme impersonal Brahman. However, they continued to play an important role for the average Hindu. The gods that are worshipped today are not the same as in Vedic times. The most important ones became Vishnu and his avatars (especially Rama and Krishna), Shiva and the goddess Kali.
Here is what is said in Vaishnavism about the relation between Brahman and Vishnu:
Just as light is diffused from a fire which is confined to one spot, so is this whole universe the diffused energy of the supreme Brahman. And as light shows a difference, greater or less, according to its nearness or distance from the fire, so is there a variation in the energy of the impersonal Brahman. Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are his chief energies. The deities are inferior to them; the yakshas, etc. to the deities; men, cattle, wild animals, birds, and reptiles to the yakshas, etc.; and trees and plants are the lowest of all these energies....
Vishnu is the highest and most immediate of all the energies of Brahman, the embodied Brahman, formed of the whole Brahman. On him this entire universe is woven and interwoven: from him is the world, and the world is in him; and he is the whole universe. Vishnu, the Lord, consisting of what is perishable as well as what is imperishable, sustains everything, both Spirit and Matter, in the form of his ornaments and weapons. (Vishnu Purana 1)
Some pantheist thinkers consider that devotion is nothing but an easier path to the same impersonal union with the impersonal Ultimate Reality. According to them, devotion can serve to attain the extinction of personhood, the main source of illusion (maya). As the adored god is nothing but a form of Brahman, the mystical union with him would be, in this case, nothing more than the same impersonal fusion atman-Brahman. However, the theistic Hindu thinkers strongly disagree with this. They see the personal creator God (Vishnu in Vaishnavism or Shiva in Saivism) as having no preceding origin. Consequently, the One of the Rig Veda, Purusha of the Purushasukta, and Brahman of the Upanishads are considered nothing but the supreme personal God (Vishnu or Shiva). He is both the creator and the substance of the world (as a result of creating the world out of himself), the One that both creates and disintegrates the world at will, and the target of all religious rituals and devotion.
The best known piece of literature representative of Hindu theism is the Bhagavad Gita, where the worshipped god is Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu. Although in classic Hinduism Krishna is a manifestation of Vishnu, and Vishnu himself is one of the first manifestations of Brahman (along with Brahma and Shiva), in the Bhagavad Gita Krishna is granted a fundamental theological importance. He claims to be eternal (4,6), “the supreme Lord of all planets and demigods” (5,29) and the source of existence: “I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from me” (10,8). He is not only the creator but also the substance of the universe (9,16-19; 8,4; 10,20-42). The cycle of permanent transformation between the manifested state and the unmanifested one is characteristic for Krishna too, as it was with Brahman:
At the end of an era (kalpa) all creatures disintegrate into my nature and at the beginning of another era I manifest them again. Such it is my nature (prakriti) to follow again and again the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations. (Bhagavad Gita 9,7-8)
Krishna has to "follow the pattern of the Infinite manifestations and disintegrations", which implies that the process is a necessity that surpasses him. He is just a detached (but also helpless) spectator to it. Therefore it should be difficult to accept his dominion over creation along with the periodic manifestation of nature (prakriti). Rather, we should conclude that the creation of the world is not an option for him, but a necessity at the end of each cosmic cycle, as was the case with the manifestations of Brahman of the Upanishads. Disagreeing with this, some see this "necessity" as a divine play in which Krishna creates and disintegrates his creation at will.
The excess of Krishna's superlatives and his identification with the whole existence grants him a personal portrait that is difficult to grasp. A better Hindu theism will be founded later in time by the great Hindu thinkers Ramanuja (1017 - 1137 AD) and Madhva (1238 - 1317 AD). They refused the idea that the Ultimate Reality is the impersonal Brahman, who has no attributes, no initiative and no influence on man. As it is impossible to take Brahman as an object of worship, both thinkers accepted the god Vishnu as Ultimate Reality. He is not limited by karma, time, space or any other factor, and has an infinite number of attributes (unlike Nirguna Brahman), the most important being love, absolute knowledge, and compassion. According to Madhva, Vishnu is said to be totally different from the substance of the world. Neither nature nor the souls of the universe fuse with him to form an impersonal primordial state. He created the world out of a primordial substance (prakriti) and helps it to attain perfection. In fact, creation is periodic and dependent on the karma acquired by souls in previous existences. At the moment of creation, karma works out the fruits of the soul under divine providence. However, that means that the act of creation is not totally independent, as an act of God’s sovereign will. He is not free to create the world at will, but has to create it in order that souls may work out their karma.
Samkhya and Yoga are two of the six Hindu orthodox schools (darshana) developed in the post-Upanishadic period. As most of their metaphysical basis is common, what is mentioned here is valid for both schools.
The origin of the Samkhya system is attributed to Kapila (7th century BC), and the real organizer is considered to be Ishvara Krishna (5th century AD). The Yoga system was structured by Patanjali (sometime between 2nd century BC and 3rd century AD), who only systematized the ancient traditions preserved until his time. The writing in which Patanjali formulated the essence of the Yoga system, which represents today the reference writing on this topic, is the Yoga Sutra.
Considering how reality is defined, Samkhya and Yoga are dualistic philosophies, stressing two fundamental notions: purusha (the equivalent of atman) and prakriti (the primordial substance). Prakriti, the primordial substance, is an impersonal matrix capable of manifestation through transformation. In some way it resembles Brahman through its periodic manifestations. Unlike Brahman, it does not contain the spiritual principle purusha.
As a result of the duality postulated by this system, the material world is the product of the manifestation of prakriti and has real existence (not illusory, as in Vedanta). Its manifestation is a result of the existence of three inner tendencies, called gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. They are the material which evolves into the categories of existence when one or the other gains a dominating force. Sattva is the tendency that brings light, purity and knowledge; rajas is responsible for activity, energy and dynamism; and tamas opposes action, producing darkness, heaviness and ignorance.
The world and individual beings came into existence as a result of the disturbance of the initial state of equilibrium between the three gunas. Any known form in which we see the world is generated by the participation of a certain proportion of the three gunas. The categories of prakriti's manifestation are, in hierarchical order, as follows:
1) Mahat, the first product of manifestation, considered to be a mass of pure energy appeared as a result of the guna sattva domination. Its psychic aspect is the intellect, buddhi.
2) From mahat evolves ahamkara, the principle of individuation (the sense for the "I").
3) After producing ahamkara, the evolutionary process bifurcates. Under the influence of the guna sattva, the mind-thinking evolutes are produced: mind (manas), the five cognitive sense organs (sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell) and the five conative sense organs (speech, movement, prehension, excretion and reproduction). Under the influence of the guna tamas the physical evolutes are produced: the five subtle essences (the essences of color, sound, touch, taste and smell) and the five gross elements, which emerge from the essences (the five fundamental elements in Hindu cosmology - earth, water, air, fire and ether). The guna rajas provides the force required for this evolution.
The majority of the Yoga darshana metaphysics, at it was systematized by Patanjali, comes from Samkhya. It only adds the existence of a divinity, Ishvara. However, this Ishvara is not a personal god, but a macro-purusha that was never involved with psycho-mental activity and the law of karma (Yoga Sutra 1,24).
As a distinct spiritual trend, Tantrism appeared in the 4th century AD. It is possible that it doesn’t have Vedic origin, because its theology is grounded on two deities that did not belong to the Vedic pantheon: Shiva and the Mother Goddess (Shakti), the goddess of land, fertility and life. The two deities Shiva and Shakti became the fundamental terms in which Tantrism developed a pantheistic view of life, Shiva as the transcendental aspect, the pure existence, and Shakti as the immanent and dynamic aspect, through which the phenomenal manifestation occurs.
Hatha Yoga is also a pantheistic school, which shares the same metaphysic with Tantrism. Its forerunner is considered to be Goraknath (13th century AD). He and his followers used three sources to ground the new doctrine: Tantrism, devotional Saivism and ascetic practices of the so-called siddhas (the perfect ones). Hatha Yoga reached its full development through Svatmarama (15th century AD), the author of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika treatise. Other important writings are the Gheranda-Samhita and the Shiva-Samhita. They all belong equally to Tantrism.
For both Tantrism and Hatha Yoga, the Ultimate Reality of the universe is the god Shiva. Together with his divine consort Shakti, they form a state of primordial unity and unmanifestation that corresponds in the Advaita Vedanta to Brahman Nirguna, the unmanifested Brahman. The world and the human beings came into existence through the dissociation of the primordial unity of Shiva and Shakti. In the Shiva-Samhita 1,92, it is stated:
Out of the combining of the spirit, that is Shiva, with matter, that is Shakti, and by the interaction of one on the other, all creatures were born.
The same manifestation of the Absolute in creation, as stated by the Upanishads, is presented in the Shiva-Samhita 1,52;69-77.
The philosophy and ritual of Tantrism have penetrated most forms of today's Hinduism. It can be found in Buddhism too (where it generated the Vajrayana school), and also in Chinese Taoism.
The only religions that admit a true incarnation of Ultimate Reality in human form and consider it important in their theology are Vaishnava Hinduism and Christianity. They both assume that God descended into the world and dwelt among humans in order to save them. Vaishnava Hinduism ascribes ten incarnations (avatars) to the god Vishnu, while Christianity proclaims the sole incarnation of God the Son in Jesus Christ. Could they be equivalent? In other words, could Jesus Christ be considered a mere Western avatar, come into our world according to the Hindu pattern? On the other hand, could the avatars of Vishnu have fulfilled the same goal as Jesus? Or are there irreconcilable differences between them? As we witness today many claims that they express a similar theology, a proper investigation is necessary for unveiling the mystery that surrounds this topic.
The following analysis will investigate why the incarnation of God was necessary; how the problem arose that he came for, what the form of the divine embodiment is and how it actually solves the problem.
Vaishnava Hinduism states in its major writings, the Puranas, that the god Vishnu causes a cyclic manifestation and dissolution of the world. Each cosmic cycle (mahayuga) has four ages (Krita Yuga - 1.728.000 years, Treta Yuga - 1.296.000 years, Dvapara Yuga - 864.000 years and Kali Yuga - 432.000 years) followed by the dissolution (pralaya) of the physical world. The whole cycle is repeated 994 times, which a period is called kalpa, and then dissolution (pralaya) of both the physical and subtle world follows. 36.000 kalpas and pralayas make the lifespan of Brahma, the creator god, which is followed by a total dissolution (mahapralaya) of the physical, subtle and causal world. Then all worlds, time and space return into Brahman, and the whole cycle starts again in an endless process of manifestation and dissolution.
In Christianity, on the other hand, the world was created only once, and not as a necessity (as the cyclic manifestation of Vishnu implies) but out of God's superabundant love. Although the world became corrupted by sin, this situation doesn't belong to a normally repeated scenario (as in Hinduism) but is the result of a wrong human response to God's love. Despite the fact that our world is different from what God has originally intended, it will not follow a repeated cycle of manifestation and dissolution. The "new heaven and new earth" presented at the end of the Revelation account (21,1) is not a new creation similar to the one presented in Genesis. Otherwise it would indeed confirm a cyclic manifestation of the world according to the Hindu pattern. The Bible doesn't confirm such a mechanism. The "new heaven and new earth" is an everlasting world where sin is eradicated and there will be "no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21,4). It will belong to those who accepted His grace through Jesus Christ (21,27) and will never have a pralaya to end it.
The god Vishnu is said to descend ten times into our world during each cosmic cycle (mahayuga) in order to restore the balance between good and evil. His incarnations (avatars) vary depending on the Hindu writing that describes them. The Mahabharata gives three lists of Vishnu's avatars: First there are mentioned four, then six, and finally there is a list of ten, in the form of: (1) swan, (2) tortoise, (3) fish, (4) boar, (5) man-lion, (6) dwarf, (7) Bhargava Rama, (8) Dasaratha Rama, (9) Krishna, and (10) Kalki. The Garuda Purana lists 19 avatars of Vishnu, while the Bhagavata Purana lists 22 in one place and 23 in another. Since the time of the Bhagavata Purana the number of avatars has been uniformly recognized as ten. Therefore we will use the following list in the present analysis: (1) fish, (2) tortoise, (3) boar, (4) man-lion, (5) dwarf, (6) Parasurama, (7) Rama, (8) Krishna, (9) Buddha and (10) Kalki. The first nine have occurred already and the last one is still to come. Let us give a brief description of each avatar and see what its goal was and the method used for fulfilling it.
(1) The fish (Matsya). The Vedas were stolen from Brahma by a demon, so the gods sent a flood on the earth to drown him and thus recover the holy scriptures. Vishnu took the form of a fish, predicted the coming deluge to the saint Manu and saved him together with his family by leading his ship to safety.
(2) The tortoise (Kurma). During the deluge that destroyed the world the cream of the milk ocean (amrita), by which the gods renewed their youthfulness and avoided death, was lost. Both gods and demons together set about producing amrita by churning the ocean of milk, using a mountain as churning stick and the incarnation of Vishnu as a pivot on which to rest it. Their action was successful and the amrita recovered.
(3) The boar (Varaha). Brahma had been forced to grant the boon of immortality to a demon that had performed austerities. Under the cover of this boon, the demon persecuted both men and gods and even stole the Vedas from Brahma and dragged the earth under the ocean, down to his dark abode. However, he forgot to mention the boar when reciting the name of gods, men and animals from which to be immune, so Vishnu took the form of a huge boar, descended into the ocean, killed the demon with his tusks, recovered the Vedas and released the earth.
(4) The man-lion (Narasinha). A demon had obtained the boon of immunity through asceticism from the attacks of men, beasts and gods. He had the assurance from Brahma that he could not be killed either day or night, inside or outside his house. This demon grew powerful and forbade the worship of all gods and substituted it with worship for himself. Vishnu took the form of half-man, half-lion (neither man nor beast) and tore the demon into pieces in the evening (neither in the day nor in the night) in the doorway of his palace (neither inside nor outside it).
(5) The dwarf (Vamana). The king Bali had gained too much power by his sacrifices, so the gods were endangered of losing their heavenly position to him. Therefore Vishnu was incarnated as a dwarf and asked the king the gift of three paces of land. Once accepted, the dwarf suddenly grew to an enormous size and covered all the earth and the heavens by his paces and Bali was left with only the nether regions.
(6) Parasurama (Rama with the ax). The warrior caste (kshatriya) was exercising tyranny over all men, especially over the Brahmins, so the priestly caste was endangered. Vishnu came to earth as Parasurama and exterminated the whole kshatriya caste with his ax.
While he was still on earth, the next avatar (Ramachandra) came and the two had to struggle. Ramachandra defeated him in a trial of strength and broke his bow. (Both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata recollect this episode. In the Mahabharata Parasurama is knocked senseless by Ramachandra.)
(7) Ramachandra (Rama), the hero of the Ramayana epic. The demon Ravana had practiced austerities in order to propitiate Brahma, who had granted him immunity from being killed by gods, gandharvas and demons. Under this cover, Ravana persecuted gods and men. Vishnu took the human form of prince Rama, for Ravana was too proud to ask immunity from men. Many adventures followed in his trip to save his wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon and taken to the Lanka Island. Rama raised an army of monkeys and bears led by the monkey-god Hanuman and a great battle was fought in front of the gates of the city. Rama used a magic weapon infused by the power of many gods, killed Ravana and rescued his wife.
(8) Krishna. The objective of Vishnu's incarnation as Krishna was to kill the demon Kamsa, who had become a tyrannical king, killing children and banning the worship of Vishnu. Krishna's mission had three phases: childhood, youth and middle age. During childhood he performed many feats of strength, killing all demons sent against him by Kamsa. In his youth, Krishna had many amorous adventures with married cowgirls. At last, in his middle-age, he killed Kamsa and took part in the Bharata war (with the most famous episode being the one recollected in the Bhagavad Gita). His mission accomplished, Krishna retreated into the forest in meditation. A hunter mistook his foot for a deer and shot it, thus piercing Krishna's one vulnerable spot and mortally wounding him.
(9) Buddha. The demons had stolen the sacrificial potions of the gods and performed asceticism, so the gods could not conquer them. Vishnu incarnated as a man of delusion in order to propagate false ideas and lead them astray from their old faith. Buddha preached that there is no creator, that the three major gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) were just ordinary mortals, that there is no dharma, that death is total annihilation, that there is no heaven and hell and that the sacrifices are of no value. Obviously, Buddha as avatar of Vishnu has no historical background. He was a kind of devil's advocate who managed to weaken the opponents of the gods. The demons became Buddhists, abandoned the Vedas and consequently were killed by the gods. This story was first presented in the Vishnu Purana (5th century AD) and is an attempt to subordinate Buddhism to Hinduism.
(10) Kalki. The last avatar, who is still to come, puts an end to the degenerated earth, accomplishing the final destruction of the wicked and preparing the way for the renewal of creation and the resurgence of virtue in the next mahayuga.
Which avatar's case fits into this scenario
The avatar came to save humans
1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8
The avatar kills a demon
3, 4, 7, 8
A demon performed austerities and gained too much power over the gods
3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9
The avatar's form of embodiment
Animal (1, 2, 3), half-beast, half-human (4), human (5, 6, 7, 8, 9) according to how the demon had to be deceived.
The avatar came to save the gods
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9
table summarizes the meaning of Vishnu's past 9 avatars:
Now let us turn to the nature of the divine incarnation in Christianity by presenting the nature of salvation in Christianity.
The Christian account of divine incarnation presents God the Son willingly leaving His divine glory, taking a human body and descending into our world through the virgin birth. The Apostle Paul states:
Christ Jesus, being in nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the nature of a servant, being made in human likeness (Philippians 2,6-7).
This “making Himself nothing” performed by God the Son is called in theology “the kenosis of Christ” (lit. = “emptying”). It does not mean a subtraction of deity, but the addition of humanity with its resultant limitations. Although taking a human nature was humbling for God the Son, it did not involve the giving up of any divine attributes. The doctrine of the kenosis involves the veiling of His pre-incarnate glory (John 17,5), taking on Himself the likeness of human sinful flesh (Romans 8,3) and the temporary nonuse of divine attributes during His earthly ministry.
The kenosis of Christ was His free will initiative and not a necessity imposed by His nature, as is the case with the periodical incarnations of Vishnu. According to Christianity, Jesus Christ is the only incarnation of God, descended into our world with a unique and non-repeatable mission in history. He is not a mere avatar, a periodical incarnation of a Hindu god, but the unique incarnation of God the Son, become God the Man, perfect in both His divine and human nature. This double nature of Jesus Christ is the key for understanding His mission of reconciling man with God.
In Vaishnava Hinduism none of the avatars has a perfect union of the two natures. As they have no historical basis, it is difficult to speculate on how their divine nature combined with the physical one. Due to considering the physical body a mere garment that is put on and off (according to Bhagavad Gita 2,22), there cannot be any real association of god with a physical body. Christ came to redeem the physical body as well; therefore His association with it was real. For the same reason there is so much accent laid on His physical resurrection, which for a Hindu avatar would be completely absurd. Therefore the avatar fits best in the Docetic understanding of Christ (the appearance of a physical body, with no intrinsic value to it), which is considered a classic heresy in Christianity.
The most striking difference from Hindu avatars regards Christ's death. This was the crux of His incarnation: He had to die on the cross for our redemption from sin and reconciliation with God. The Apostle Peter states in his epistle:
He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2,24; see also 1,18-21; 3,18).
Jesus Christ as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1,29) is the cornerstone of Christianity and its non-paralleled element. Mocked and spit upon by the human race, nailed on a cross and forsaken by the Father, Jesus Christ took our place in punishment. While dying on the cross, Jesus shouted, “It is finished” (John 19,30). In Greek, the expression used was Tetelestai, which means, “the debt was paid in full”. What was meant here is the debt that man deserved to pay for his sins in hell, through eternal torment. By His death, Jesus paid in full the price required for the salvation of mankind from sin.
Was the suffering of Christ on the cross a mere illusion, as some esoteric interpretations suggest? Obviously not! His torment and death were so real that none of those who saw it could expect a future victory over death. This proves the full incarnation of God the Son. He did not die only in physical appearance, as the Docetist heresy suggests, but as a poor miserable man, experiencing suffering in its fullest sense. His death proves both the seriousness of our sin and the unfathomable love of God, as Jesus once proclaimed:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3,16).
According to Hinduism, demons are either beings that appeared through the primordial act of manifestation, or humans that didn't follow their duty (dharma) or performed bad deeds during their lifetime. Consequently they reincarnate as evil beings which cause much suffering in the world. However, the evil they do is not arbitrary, as the law of karma makes sure that the humans afflicted by demons are justly punished for their own bad deeds performed in previous lives. Therefore, from a global point of view the demons' bad deeds must be seen as necessary in balancing karma. On the other hand, the demon stage of existence is limited, and eventually there is reincarnation back into human form and henceforth a new chance given to attain liberation.
Keeping this in mind, it becomes absurd that Vishnu has to intervene in the world by descending as an avatar to save it. Save it from what? From the consequences of karma, a spiritual law that can never be abolished? As long as karma operates in the world, the killing of a demon has a limited effect. It doesn't guarantee that the demon will not create problems in his next existence. According to the reincarnation doctrine, only one's physical frame can be "killed" (see Bhagavad Gita 2,19), not the "infinite, immortal soul". For this reason, demons never stop creating problems, so there are necessary periodical incarnations of the divine, at least 10 in each mahayuga. As the periodical manifestation of the world created by Vishnu never ends, so does the affliction of it by the demons. Therefore, the solution of killing the demons by the avatars is only a short-term solution to the problem of evil in the world.
On the other hand, in Christianity, demons have a different nature and destiny. They are fallen angels who will never reincarnate, return to their initial status or attain salvation. As the present world has a limited time span and there is no re-manifestation of it, the demons will be eternally separated from the Kingdom of God at the judgment day.
How Did the Demons Attain Power Over the Gods?
An interesting fact in Hinduism is that anyone - god, human or demon - can attain the same magical power through performing austerities (tapas). Once this power is attained, nobody can break it. In fact, the 3rd, 4th, 7th, 8th and 9th avatars of Vishnu all came because a demon performed so many austerities that the god Brahma was forced to grant him the boon of immortality as a reward. The mechanism of attaining such power is beyond the control of the gods, which proves their weakness in ruling the world. As a result, the avatar has to find a way of killing the demon without breaking the promises made to him by Brahma. The solutions are sometimes funny (see for instance the 3rd and the 4th avatar).
On the other hand, in Christianity demons have no possible way of blackmailing God. They cannot attain more power than they were left with at the fall. Neither angels nor demons could ever represent a threat for God. According to Christianity, such a power as that attained by the Hindu demons cannot be attained by any creature in our world, by any possible way of asceticism. Power can only be given by God, in a limited measure, and only in order to recognize the true source of power, who is God himself.
Who did the divine incarnation came to save, gods or humans?
In Hinduism not only can demons force the gods to admit their merits, but the descent of the divine into human form is more concerned with saving the world of the gods than that of humans. For instance, there are 8 avatars (no. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 and 9) involved in saving the world of gods from the power attained by demons, while only 6 (no. 1, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 8) are concerned with saving humans. This proves that the gods have a fragile position and are more concerned about themselves than the problems of humankind.
In Christianity the idea of God
becoming incarnate to
save Himself is absurd. God is not affected at all by anything demons
From this point of view, the coming of Christ could never have occurred
necessary. The only purpose of God's incarnation in Jesus
Christ is the
salvation of humans from the effect of sin. The problem in
not that demons are a threat to God, but that man has chosen to disobey
Through the act of the divine incarnation man can gain a chance to
personal communion with his Creator.
How does the divine incarnation save?
Usually the Hindu avatar kills the demon (no. 3, 4, 7, 8, only the demon-king Bali is spared and sent to hell by no. 5). The killing is performed with much caution, so that the promises made by the god Brahma should not be broken. However, due to reincarnation this "killing" is not of much effect, being only a limited solution to the problem of evil.
On the other hand, in Christianity, Jesus Christ didn't literally kill Satan. In accordance with the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, Jesus let Himself be crucified for our sake. This was the "gift of God" (Romans 6, 23) as ransom for our sins, a chance offered to us to be set free from the power of Satan and sin. According to the Bible, the final destruction of demons' power will only occur at the judgment day (Revelation 20, 10).
Contradictory aspects of the Hindu avatars
An odd fact to mention here is the conflicts between two contemporary avatars of the Treta Yuga (Parasurama and Ramachandra). How can this be? How could two incarnations of the same god wrestle with one another? Isn't each avatar under divine control? Why didn't the first Rama leave in time? Or why couldn't he solve the problem for which the next avatar came, if he was present anyway in the world?
On the other hand, how could the gods cooperate with demons at the time of the second avatar's (Kurma) coming? How is it possible to become allies and to be both threatened by the absence of amrita? This leads us to believe that both gods and demons are of the same nature and use the same source of power.
A Hindu View of Christ
Jesus Christ is an ineradicable part of modern Hinduism. The power of the cross is felt in the lives of many Hindus in different walks of life. Hindus adore Christ. The way in which Christ has touched their lives, and their responses to him are varied: some Hindus acknowledge Jesus as an avatar; some others consider him as a yogi, a satguru and so on. Mahatma Gandhi for instance, showed great reverence to Jesus Christ and publicly acknowledged his indebtedness to him, but refused to limit Jesus Christ to the boundaries of this or that church.
Hindus look upon Jesus without the appendages of theology, dogma or doctrine. They give attention to his life of love and forgiveness. In the majesty of pure living, in the breadth of his sympathy, in the unselfish and sacrificial outlook of his life, and in pure disinterested love, he was supreme. What strikes a Hindu above all is His complete obedience to the will of God; the more he emptied himself the more he discovered God. The Cross is not something to be believed in and subscribed to as a dogma; but something to be lived and borne in life and experience. Jesus signifies to the Hindus the transcendence of the ego as the whole purpose of morality and spirituality. The enlightened person gains release by the surrender of his little self and its vanities by the purity of self and devotion to God.
The New Testament symbol of the Kingdom of God has made a powerful appeal to modern Hindu reformers. It has showed them the Christian message in its moral aspect. The teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are not speculative; they are exemplified in the life of Christ. These reformers were impressed that the “Kingdom of God” belongs to the humble and the poor, that the “persecuted and the meek” are its citizens; that the “pure in heart” see it, and that the “Kingdom” is not meat and drink, but “righteousness, and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” On the social side, the Kingdom of God involves the establishment of right relationships between institutions and communities of people. Modern Hindu reformers have felt that this aspect of Christ’s teaching was much needed in India. They tried to inculcate the view that spirituality did not consist in turning away from poverty, misery, and ignorance, but in fully facing and fighting them
Gandhi’s understanding and practice of the cross brought out fresh aspects of Jesus’ life and character which the West has not so clearly perceived. He demonstrated how the soul force fights and overcomes evil only with the weapons of Truth and love. Although satyagraha was used by Gandhi, a Hindu against governments run by Christians (whether in South Africa or Britain), many Christians all over the world recognized that his movements were in truth Christian, a reviving and reinterpretation of the cross. Dr. Stanely Jones, the well known American missionary (in his Gandhi: An Interpretation, p. 105) observes: “Never in human history has so much light been shed through this one man, and that man not even called Christian. Had not our Christianity been vitiated and overlain by our identification with unchristian attitudes and policies in public and private life, we would have seen at once the kinship between Gandhi’s method and the cross.”
Hindus do not accept the Bible as the only scripture and Jesus Christ as the only instance of God’s self-disclosure. And yet the Hindus accept the Bible, and the scriptures of other religions along with the Vedas as God-given. Despite this theological difference between Hindu and Christian approaches, practical cooperation with one another is possible in overcoming violence, war, injustice, poverty and sickness in the world. In this regard, the following verses of the New Testament are instructive:
And John answered and said, “Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbade him, because he followeth not with us”. And Jesus said unto him, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” (Luke 9: 4-50).
Could Jesus Christ be assimilated with a Hindu avatar?
Christianity is a religion that breaks into history, presenting Jesus Christ as a historical God-man who was born, lived and died nearly 2.000 years ago. If his life were not a unique historical event, His whole teaching would be absurd. His claims, miracles, passion and resurrection, if taken out of history, leave nothing to Christianity. On the other hand, Hinduism is not concerned with historicism, so it can accept any tales of the repeated divine incarnation. The spiritual message of the avatars is the only element that matters, not their historical presence. Having this mindset, Hindus accept Jesus Christ as an avatar (of the Western world) with a powerful message, but being nothing more than any other avatar.
On the one hand, Hinduism is
even Buddha among the avatars, the one who rejected the basic tenets of
Hinduism. On the other hand, Christianity is exclusivistic when it
characterizing the descent of the divine into human form. Jesus Christ
be just another avatar, a mere variant of an eternal myth. This would
Him of His true identity. His passion, death on the cross and
Him a totally different portrait than the Hindu avatars. Rabindranath
summarized it in his book Death of a Guru in the
following words: Jesus
said he is the way, not a way; so that eliminates
Krishna and everyone
else. He did not come to destroy sinners - like Krishna said of himself
to save them. And no one else could. Jesus is not
just one of many gods.
He is the only true God, and He came to this earth as a man, not just
us how to live but to die for our sins. Krishna never did that. And
resurrected, which never happened to Krishna or Rama or Shiva - in
(R. Maharaj Death of a Guru, Philadelphia, A.J. Holman Co., 1977, p. 148)
An Explanation of Reincarnation in Eastern Religions
Many cultures throughout the world have long held to the concept of reincarnation. One Gallup Poll revealed that one in four Americans believed in reincarnation. Reincarnation literally means, "to come again in the flesh." World religions author Geoffrey Parrinder defines reincarnation as "the belief that the soul or some power passes after death into another body.”
Reincarnation is a major facet of the eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism. Many sects have variant views of reincarnation. Here is a general summary of the basic principles: Most hold to a pantheistic view of God. Pantheism comes from the Greek pan meaning "all" and concept of theism meaning "God." In Pantheism, God is an impersonal force made up of all things; the universe is God and God is the universe. All created beings are an extension of or an emanation from God.
Living things possess a physical body and an immaterial entity called the soul, life force, or Jiva. At death, the life force separates from the body and takes a new physical form. The law of karma determines what form the individual will take. This law teaches, once again, that one’s thoughts, words, and deeds have an ethical consequence, fixing one’s lot in future existences. Our present state is the result of actions and intentions performed in a previous life. The amount of good or bad karma attained in our present life will determine if one returns in a higher or a lower form of existence.
One will endure hundreds, even thousands of reincarnations, either evolving into a higher or lower form of life to work off the debt of karma. This cycle of reincarnation is called the law of samsara. Eventually one hopes to work off all bad karma and free oneself from the reincarnation cycle and attain unity with the divine. This freeing from the cycle of reincarnation is called moksha. The soul is viewed as imprisoned in a body and must be freed to attain unity with the divine.
Each school of thought varies in their teaching regarding how one attains ultimate deliverance from the reincarnation cycle. Most agree that it is only from the human form one can attain unity with the divine. Deliverance from the bondage of the body can be attained through various means. Some schools teach that through enlightenment that comes from knowledge, meditation, and channeling, one can break the cycle. Other schools teach that deliverance comes through faith and service to a particular deity or manifestation of the divine. In return, the deity will aid in the quest for moksha. Other schools teach that one can attain deliverance through discipline and good works.
Much of the reincarnation teaching in the West is adapted from the teachings in the eastern religions. Is there evidence that proves reincarnation to be true? We will examine this next.
Evidences for Reincarnation
Leading reincarnation researcher Dr. Ian Stephenson, head of the department of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, believes there is compelling evidence for reincarnation. Proponents give five proofs: hypnotic regression, déjà vu, Xenoglossy, birthmarks, and the Bible.
The first proof is hypnotic regression. Reincarnation proponents cite examples of individuals giving vivid and accurate descriptions of people, places, and events the individual could not have previously known. Today there is a small branch of psychology that practice past life therapy, the belief that one’s present problems are the result of problems from a previous life.
However, the accuracy of facts attained from hypnosis remains highly questionable. First, some people are known to have lied under hypnosis. Second, human memory is subject to distortions of all sorts. Third, under hypnosis a patient’s awareness of fantasy and reality is blurred. Dr. Kenneth Bowers, a psychologist at the University of Waterloo and Dr. Jan Dywane at McMaster University states:
". . .although hypnosis increases recall, it also increases errors. In their study, hypnotized subjects correctly recalled twice as many items as did unhypnotized members of a control group but also made three times as many mistakes. During hypnosis, you are creating memories."
Fourth, studies have shown that under hypnosis, patients are easily influenced by leading questions. In the process of hypnosis, the patient is asked to release control of his or her consciousness and body. Hans Holzer states, "Generally women are easier to hypnotize than men. But there are exceptions even among women, who may have difficulty letting go of control over their bodies and personalities, something essential if genuine hypnosis is to take place." In this state, memories can be altered by the cues from the hypnotist. For these reasons, many law courts do not consider testimony under hypnosis reliable evidence.
Past life recall can also be attributed to the influence of culture. Cultures heavily steeped in the doctrine of reincarnation create an environment conducive to past life recall. The countries of India, Sri Lanka, Burma, and western Asia have a high number of cases. Many who make claims of past life recall win the respect of their society. In areas like these the culture can have a strong influence on one’s subconscious mind. If reincarnation is true, past life recall should be prevalent in all cultures, not primarily in one area.
Finally, the majority of the incidents occur among children. Dr. Stephenson states, "Many of those claiming to have lived before are children. Often they are emotional when they talk of the person they used to be, and they give minute details of the life they lived." Children are the most susceptible to suggestion and their testimony should be viewed with caution.
At best, the evidence from hypnotic regress can only suggest a possibility of reincarnation, but it does not conclusively prove it.
Déjà vu refers to a distinct feeling you have been to a place or performed an event before, while engaged in something that is presently happening. Reincarnation proponents attribute this to a previous life. However, researchers give alternate explanations. In our subconscious, we often relate a present event with a past one that the conscious mind does not remember. Since the two events are similar we often fuse the events together in our minds, thus creating an impression that we have experienced this before. Other researchers have shown that the data that enters the eye is sometimes delayed for a microsecond on its way to the brain. This leads one to think that they have seen the data before.
Xenoglossy is the sudden ability to speak a language one has never learned. Reincarnation advocates attribute this as the language one spoke in a previous life. However, crypto-amnesia can account for this phenomenon. In crypto-amnesia, an individual forgets information that was learned earlier and recalls it at a later time, not knowing its source. It is possible that one can hear foreign terms through the media or as a child and recall these when prompted.
The fourth proof is the appearance of unique birthmarks that are similar to those possessed by a deceased individual. However, it is difficult to show any connection to reincarnation. Similarity does not prove sameness.
These alternative explanations can explain most of the evidences for reincarnation. However where they fall short, we must entertain the possibility of demonic possession where a foreign spirit takes control of the person as demonstrated several times throughout the New Testament. Demonic spirits have existed for thousands of years and are not limited by time and space. The information they possess can be injected into a person’s mind during possession. Eastern meditation techniques allow for this possibility. Dr. Bro writes of Edgar Cayce, the father of the New Age movement, "Cayce’s power came without equipment, in quiet. He appeared to empty himself, to hollow out his consciousness as a receptacle, a conduit."
Even reincarnation advocates believe that many cases of past life recall can be attributed to possession. They confess that it is difficult to determine whether a past life recall is the result of reincarnation or possession. William de Arteaga states, "In reference to the demonic counterfeit hypothesis, we can safely say that for many past life visions it is the most solidly verified hypothesis of all."
Edgar Cayce stated, "That’s what I always thought, and against this I put the idea that the Devil might be tempting me to do his work by operating through me when I was conceited enough to think God had given me special power. . . ."
Although the evidence can be interpreted to support reincarnation, it cannot conclusively prove it.
Although reincarnation proponents cite the Bible as proof of their claim, the Bible refutes the idea. It teaches that we live once, die once, and then enter our eternal state. Hebrews 9:26b-27 states, "But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people. . . ." The focus here is on the sacrificial work of Christ. Instead of the continual animal sacrifices needed to atone for sins under the old covenant, under the new covenant Christ paid for sins once and for all.
In the same way as Christ, who appeared only once, man is destined to die once. Just as there is finality in Christ’s sacrifice, there is finality in man’s physical death. After that, the soul faces the judgment before God to determine one’s eternal destiny. Once judgment is delivered, Scripture gives no evidence that sins can be atoned for in another time of living on earth (Rev. 20:11-15; Luke 16:19-31; Matt. 25:31-46).
The passage often appealed to by those who support reincarnation is John 9:1-3, which states, "As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’" Reincarnation proponents claim that in this passage the disciples are attributing the man’s blindness as the result of bad karma from a previous existence.
However, Jewish theology attributed birth defects to two factors. Prenatal sin committed by the baby after conception, but before birth, or sin committed by the parents. Genesis 25:22, the struggle of Jacob and Esau in Rachel’s womb, was interpreted as a conflict that resulted from prenatal sin. Exodus 20:5 states that the parents’ sin often had repercussions on their offspring. However, in the passage in John 9:1-3, Jesus refutes any connection between the man’s defects and any previous sins, thus putting an end to any concept of karma.
Another passage is Matthew 11 where Jesus states that John the Baptist is Elijah. Reincarnation proponents interpret John as being the reincarnated Elijah from the Old Testament. This cannot be true for the following reasons. First, in 2 Kings 2, Elijah never died, but was taken to heaven. In the reincarnation model one must die before one can take on a new form. Second, in Matthew 17 Elijah appears with Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration. John the Baptist had lived and died by this time. If he had been the reincarnation of Elijah, John would have appeared instead. John came not as the reincarnation of Elijah, but in a metaphorical sense as Elijah in that he was filled with the same spirit and power as Elijah.
No texts in the Bible or Church History Teach Reincarnation.
There is an opinion that some texts or their parts were taken out of the canon by the Church or even destroyed. (Prof. Nestle - Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the Greek Testament, Rev. G.J.R. Ousley - The Gospel of the Holy Twelve, etc.).
If we take as a basis transcripts of New Testament texts extant on papyri from the 2nd century as we find them in every critical edition of the Greek original, there is no trace of censorship. This would have to happen latest at the beginning of the 2nd century when the Church controlled only minority of texts and always only locally.
This can be taken as a valid objection. The Bible, however, does not mention many other facts about the material or spiritual world. Still there are interesting passages in this regard:
Psalm 104:29-30: "Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. "Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth."
Reincarnation seems to be an accepted fact in Jesus' time, but it is not, as I alluded to earlier. John 9:1-3: "And as [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man which was blind from [his] birth.” And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? "Jesus answered, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." To infer that this supports reincarnation is to stretch the imagination.
There are Bible quotes used that seem to support reincarnation in the Bible which are not relevant. They usually appear in texts from New Age scene known for its lack of intellectual rigor.
In Matthew 11:14 Jesus said, "And if you are willing to accept it, [John the Baptist] is the Elijah who was to come." This does not mean that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah. Luke 1:17 tells that the ministry of John the Baptist was carried out "in the spirit and power of Elijah." Moreover, John the Baptist, when asked if he was Elijah, flatly answered, "No." (John 1:21).
Likewise, in John 3:3 Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." The context clearly shows that Jesus was referring to a spiritual rebirth (3:5-6).
2 Kings 2:11 says that Elijah was taken up into heaven in his own body and Matthew 17:3 mentions that Elijah appeared together with Jesus and Moses on the mountain.
There are also quotes used to debunk the notion of reincarnation. Job 16:22: "When a few years are come, then I shall go the way whence I shall not return." On the other hand, Job 1:21 seems to suggest otherwise: "And said, Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." This passage is, however, not clear and differs in various translations.
Hebrews 9:27 tells that "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment." General Christian view is that man is a compact being (who really dies only once), not a transcendent immortal entity inhabiting various bodies in succession, although Paul in several passages speaks about presence or absence from a body. 2 Corinthians 5:8 is one such case. It is used to prove that at death the Christian immediately goes into the presence of the Lord, not into another body. This is, however, not obvious from the quote.
The stay in hell is eternal (Matthew 18:8, 25:41,46, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, Jude 1:6 etc.).
Luke 16:19-31 indicates that unbelievers at death go to a place of suffering, not into another body.
There is an interesting incident in early Church history. St. Doran (AD 563) of Iona (Hebrides), after being buried for some time as a human sacrifice, said he had a look into afterlife and claimed: "The saved are not forever happy, the damned are not forever lost." He was buried again as a heretic...
The Council of Constantinople rejected pre-existence of souls, and thus, by implication, the reincarnation.
It was not the Fifth Ecumenical Council in AD 553, as often mentioned, but local Home Synod of Constantinople (AD 544-6) held to condemn Origen's teachings, pre-existence being one of them. Emperor Justinian required the bishops to condemn the doctrine of universal restoration. He especially urged Mennas to anathematize the doctrine "that wicked men and devils will at length be discharged from their torments, and re-established in their original state."
The half-heathen emperor held to the idea of endless misery, for he not only defends, but defines the doctrine. He does not merely say, "We believe in aionion kolasin," for that was just what Origen taught. Nor does he say "the word aionion has been misunderstood; it denotes endless duration," as he would have said, had there been such a disagreement. But he says: "The holy church of Christ teaches an endless aeonian life to the righteous, and endless punishment to the wicked."
Justinian, in his commentary on the Meteorologica of Aristotle, 8 says: "Do not suppose that the soul is punished for endless ages in Tartarus. Properly the soul is not punished to gratify the revenge of the divinity, but for the sake of healing. But we say that the soul is punished for an aeonian period, calling its life, and its allotted period of punishment, its aeon."
The synod voted fifteen canons, not one of which condemns universal restoration despite emperor's effort. The first canon reads thus:
"If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and the monstrous restitution which follows from it, let him be anathema."
It is confirmed in the fourteenth anathema (where the Church condemns also advaita, monism): "If anyone says that there will be a single unity of all rational beings, their substances and individualities being taken away together with their bodies, and also that there will be an identity of cognition as also of persons, and that in the fabulous restitution they will only be naked even as they had existed in that pre-existence which they insanely introduced, let him be anathema."
The whole issue was obviously a political, not a theological one. Pre-existence is, however, accepted in Jeremiah 1:5 and Ephesians 1:4. Revelation 3:12 says: "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out."
The Bible does not affirm reincarnation!
Reincarnation and Resurrection
The Bible teaches that what happens after death is a resurrection, not reincarnation. First Corinthians 15 is one of the clearest passages on what happens to the human soul after death. Like the reincarnation proponents, it is agreed that the immaterial component of man separates from the body at death and survives eternally. It is agreed that the soul inhabits another bodily form.
The major difference is this: reincarnation proponents believe that the soul inhabits many bodily forms in an evolutionary progress toward union with the divine. This can happen over millions of years or in a shorter period. The Bible teaches in Hebrews 9:26-27, as previously discussed, that we live once, die once and then enter into an eternal state.
Our eternal state is described in 1 Corinthians 15. Verse 20 states, "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep." By "first-fruits" Paul was drawing on the descriptions found in the Old Testament. The first-fruits were prior to the main harvest and served as an example and an assurance of the harvest that was coming. Christ's resurrection is a precursor and a guarantee of the believer’s resurrection. His resurrection greatly differs from the reincarnation.
First, Christ's resurrected body physically resembled His earthly body. It had physical properties displayed by the fact that He could be touched, He communicated, and He ate. His glorified body also possessed supernatural attributes. He was able to walk through walls, appear and disappear, and ascend to heaven.
Paul describes the glorified body as having a different kind of flesh from the earthly body. He states, "All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another, fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies. . . ." The new body will be imperishable and immortal. It will be a spiritual body that is designed for life in heaven. The glorified body will not suffer the effects of sin or the effects of time, sickness, or pain.
The unrighteous, however, enter a state of eternal torment immediately after death. Luke 16:19-31 demonstrates this point. In this example the unrighteous wealthy man enters hell immediately at death. In Matthew 25 the goats enter a state of eternal punishment with no hope of escape.
In summary, the differences are as follows: First, reincarnation teaches that the migration of the soul occurs over many lifetimes while resurrection occurs once. Second, reincarnation teaches we inhabit many different bodies while resurrection teaches we inhabit only one body on earth and a glorified immortal body in heaven that resembles our earthly one. Third, reincarnation teaches we are in an evolutionary progress to union with God while resurrection teaches we arrive at our ultimate state immediately at death. The Bible does not support reincarnation, and it must not be confused with the doctrine of the resurrection.
Hinduism in America
In America, the dominant Hindu belief is called Vedanta.
Of all the conflicting schools of Hinduism, Vedanta has had the most profound overall influence: Vedanta ("the end of vedas") was the school which gave organized and systematic form to the teaching of the Upanishads. While the other schools are almost or wholly extinct, Vedanta is still much alive, for nearly all the great Hindu religious teachers of recent centuries have been Vedantists of one branch or another. (1)
The influence of Vedanta on Indian thought has been profound, so it may be said that, in one or another of its forms, Hindu philosophy has become Vedanta. (2)
Hinduism is, truly speaking, the religion and philosophy of Vedanta. (3)
Since the texts of Vedanta are contradictory and impossible to interpret uniformly (4) various schools of Vedanta have arisen.
The dominant Vedantic school in America is called advaita or the "non-dual" school. This belief teaches that there is only one impersonal God called Brahman. Brahman alone is real--everything else is considered a dream of Brahman--an "illusion."
This form of Hinduism teaches that as part of its "sport" or "play" (lila), Brahman exuded or emerged the universe as part of itself, but then "covered" it with what is called maya or illusion. This illusion is the entire physical universe that we see around us, including all stars and planets, the sky, trees, rivers, mountains and all people as well (5).
However, Hinduism also teaches that Brahman exists "beneath" this illusory universe. In other words, Brahman resides "in" and "underneath" the material creation, including man. This explains why the goal of Hinduism is to go inward to allegedly discover that one's true nature is God or Brahman.
Hinduism aims at supposedly revealing one's inward divine nature by "contacting" Brahman through occult practice.
This idea that the world is an illusion "hiding" Brahman is a key teaching of Hinduism in America. As the next questions will demonstrate, this teaching has profound practical implications.
What are the beliefs of Hinduism concerning the world in which we live?
Because Hinduism teaches that the world is ultimately an illusion, a "dream" of Brahman, the basic philosophy of Hinduism can be described as nihilism. The Oxford American Dictionary defines nihilism as: "(1) a negative doctrine, the total rejection of current beliefs in religion or morals; (2) a form of skepticism that denies all existence" (6). Thus, in the end Hindu practice leads to nihilism, e.g., "The experience of samadhi [Hindu "enlightenment"] is, literally, a death to the things of this world" (7).
Nihilism is exactly what the Hindu gurus in America teach:
Swami Vivekananda - The world...never existed; it was a dream, maya. (8)
Paramahansa Yogananda - I don't take life seriously at all....It's all a dream. (9)
Ram Dass - What responsibility? God has all the responsibility. I don't have any responsibility. (10)
Meher Baba - Mere mind and mere body do not exist. (11)
Da Free John - All of this life, past and future, up and down, in and out, is just an hallucination....What is that great universe?....It is absolutely nothing....In our [spiritual] enlightenment, the entire appearing universe is impotent, no longer the intentional creation of holy God at all....Birth, the world, and the whole affair of life become nonsense, no longer impinge on you, have no implication whatsoever, absolutely none....Ultimately, there is no world. (12)
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh - Your so-called society....Is a conspiracy against man....Whatever you call real life is not real....Society is rotten....I am not at all concerned with society....[we are] escaping from illusions and escaping into reality [through "enlightenment"]--hence it's not really escapist. (13)
There is no purpose in life....the questions are meaningless, the answers are even more so [life is a] meaningless, fruitless effort leading nowhere--...this whole [life is] nonsense...you simply live: there is no purpose. (14)
Shree Aurobindo/The "Mother" - One lives in Auroville [the spiritual community] in order to be free of moral and social conventions. (15)
According to Hinduism, Brahman is wholly indifferent to what goes on in the world. Brahman is impersonal; it does not speak, it is unconcerned with good or evil. It is unconcerned with men and women. It has no cares because it has no feeling. It is unconcerned with morals because it has no values. Thus, the one who "knows" Brahman knows there is no right or wrong nor is there a world in which they actually happen. In Hinduism the truly "enlightened" individual is indifferent to all actions.
These, then, are the beliefs of Hinduism in America concerning the world we live in. Ultimately, the world we live in is an illusion, worth nothing.
Yet ironically, the Hindu gurus claim they offer people a transcendence and "meaning" to life which Western materialism has cruelly denied them. In truth, however, both Hinduism and materialism end in exactly the same place--nihilism. This is why influential guru Da Free John asserts, "Upon this absolute Truth [of the despair of nihilism] we must build our lives" (16).
But, switching to noted atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell brings no change: "Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built" (17).
Nevertheless, people who seriously adopt a nihilistic philosophy should realize that it can profoundly affect them. Consider the description of the truly "enlightened" soul as given by the great Hindu saint Ramakrishna:
But the man who always sees God [Brahman] and talks to him intimately has an altogether different nature. He acts sometimes like an inert thing, sometimes like a ghoul, sometimes like a child, and sometimes like a madman....He is not conscious of the holy and the unholy. He does not observe any formal purity. To him everything is Brahman....People notice his ways and actions and think of him as insane. (18)
Further, any culture that adopts such a philosophy can also be profoundly affected. India is living proof that what a people are committed to inwardly is powerfully manifested outwardly. India's so-called "Wisdom from the East" carries a heady price tag. A small part of this cost is discussed by Paul Molnar. Writing in the National Review he recalls his feelings after a trip to India:
It's the utter degradation of the scene; the squalor, defecation, hashish, the pus-filled wounds on the backs of the holy men, pilgrims pushing and crowding into temples where a sweetish stench dominates--all that, plus the dead.
It was hard, afterward, to sort out my impressions, to pull them together. Paul Claudel once wrote to friends, during his travels and ambassadorships in the Far East, that oriental religion is the devil's invention. In these ecumenical times one is not supposed to say such things. Yet that is my inescapable conclusion. The faith of the worshippers is, without any doubt, sincere, even fervent....But the objects of worship are brutal, inhuman deities who know how to scare, punish, avenge, mock and cheat, not to elevate and forgive; and the environment surrounding the worshippers repels rather than attracts: horrid, grimacing idols with cunning or cruel stares; incredibly gaudy vulgarity, copulating monkeys, defecating cows, mud, stench, garbage. Hippies are drawn to this witches' brew, and the reason is not far to find.
What attracts and keeps them here is the degradation: of reason, of self-esteem, of vital forces, of faith in God and man. Here they find innumerable gods and none at all; everybody may do this thing just like the monkeys and the cows, sinking slowly toward the Ganges or Nirvana. Intelligence and purposefulness dissolve on the trash heap, the body rots until it becomes one with the road, the grass, the dung. The great nothingness envelops all, and the ashes go into the river. (19)
What gave India all this--and more? No one can deny it was the religion of Hinduism, a religion millions of Americans are now welcoming with open arms.
The development of altered states of consciousness
In most Eastern practices, including those of Hinduism, the development of altered states of consciousness is encouraged. Millions of people today are pursuing such altered states, thinking that these will produce a condition of spiritual "enlightenment." Altered states can involve a variety of different experiences--everything from hypnosis and other trance states to yogic kundalini arousal, shamanism, lucid dreaming, drug states, meditation and biofeedback induced consciousness, etc.
But pursuing these states can be dangerous because altered states of consciousness also tend to open the doors to spirit possession.
Historically the linkage between pagan cultures and the manipulation of consciousness for occult purposes, such as spirit possession, has been strong. This indicates that the spirit world has a vested interest in encouraging the exploration of altered states of consciousness along specific lines, especially those devoted to spirit contact. The history of Eastern religion, Western occultism, modern parapsychology, etc., constantly reveal the importance of developing altered states of consciousness for contacting other dimensions. Revelations of the spirits themselves often stress their importance for this purpose. (20)
Nobel scientist, Sir John Eccles once commented that the human brain was "a machine that a ghost can operate." His statement illustrates the truth that given the proper conditions, the human mind can become an open door permitting the influence of spirits. Altered states of consciousness are one principal method offering the proper conditions. (21)
A major study on altered states of consciousness revealed that of almost 500 societies observed, over 90% considered the experience of trance states and spirit possession as being socially acceptable (22). And now also in America, the influence of Hindu gurus and their occult practices are making trance and possession states socially acceptable. Today, in many quarters what was once called "spirit possession" is now simply termed "altered consciousness."
For example, consider the research of Tal Brooke, the former premier Western disciple of India's super guru Sathya Sai Baba. Brooke offers a powerful examination and critique of Eastern philosophy including the altered state of consciousness found in the meditative disciplines of endless numbers of gurus. Altered states of consciousness are revealed as potential ways to foster spirit contact and possession (23). Yet those who experience spirit possession frequently define it merely as an "altered state" of consciousness.
In conclusion, when Hindu gurus claim that their yogic/meditative practices will produce a "higher" state of consciousness, the practitioner should beware. These meditation-induced altered states frequently lead to periods of social withdrawal, mental illness and even demonization. (24)
1. A. L. Basham, "Hinduism," in R. C. Zaehner (ed.), The Concise Encyclopedia of Living Faiths, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1967, p. 237.
2. "Vedanta" in Encyclopedia Britannica Micropaedia, Vol. 10, p. 375.
3. Swami Satprakashananda, Hinduism and Christianity, St. Louis, MO: Vedanta Society, 1975, p. 9; cf. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, NY: MacMillan, 1951, Vol. 2, p. 28.
4. "Vedanta" in Encyclopedia Britannica Micropaedia, op. cit., p. 375; Paul Edwards' in Editor in Chief, "Indian Philosophy" NY: Collier MacMillan, 1972, rpt., Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 4, pp. 155-156; R. Garbe, "Vedanta" in James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, NY: n.d., op. cit., Vol. 12, pp. 597-598.
5. See Swami Nikhilananda, "A Discussion of Brahman in the Upanishads", The Upanishads, A New Translation, Four Volumes, New York: Bonanza/Crown Publishers, Harper & Brothers, 1949.
6. The Oxford American Dictionary, New York: Avon, 1982, p. 601.
7. Christopher Isherwood, "Introduction" in Christopher Isherwood, ed., Vedanta For The Western World, NY: Viking Press, 1968, p. 20.
8. John Yale, ed., What Religion Is in the Words of Vivekananda, New York: The Julian Press, 1962, p. 64.
9. Paramahansa Yogananda, Man's Eternal Quest, Los Angeles, CA: Self Realization Fellowship, 1975, pp. 218-219.
10. Ram Dass, "A Ten-year Perspective", The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 2, p. 179.
11. Meher Baba, Discourses, San Francisco, CA: Sufism Reoriented, 1973, Vol. 3, p. 146.
12. Bubba Free John, The Way That I Teach, Middletown, CA: The Dawnhorse Press, 1978, pp. 226, 227, 238-248.
13. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, "Society Is An Illusion", Sannyas, March-April, 1979, pp. 3-5.
14. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, I Am the Gate, San Francisco, CA: Perennial Library, 1978, pp. 5-6.
15. Robert A. McDermott, The Essential Aurobindo, ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1974, p. 24.
16. Bubba Free John, The Way That I Teach, op. cit., p. 239; cf., pp. 238-248.
17. Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays, NY: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1957, p. 107.
18. Mahendranath Gupta, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, NY: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1977, p. 405.
19. Reprint of "Oh Benares" article from National Review in SCP Newsletter, 1985, p. 22.
20. Primary references are supplied in John Ankerberg, John Weldon, Can You Trust Your Doctor? The Complete Guide to New Age Medicine and Its Threat to Your Family, Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991, pp. 287-301.
21. Ibid., pp. 146-147.
22. Erika Bourguignon, Religion, Altered States of Consciousness and Social Change, Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1973, pp. 16-17.
23. Tal Brooke, with research assistance by John Weldon, Riders of the Cosmic Circuit, Batavia, IL: Lion Publishers, 1986, pp. 39-50, 107-139, 165-208, available from Spiritual Counterfeits Project, P. O. Box 4308, Berkeley, CA 94702.
24. "Meditation", John Ankerberg, John Weldon, Can You Trust Your Doctor?, op. cit., Chapter 10.
The inherent racism of historic Hinduism is blatant. You were judged by the color of your skin, not the content of your character, skills or talents. The darker your skin, the lower your caste and rank in Hindu society. The whiter your skin, the higher your caste and rank. The Brahmins prided themselves on their white skin while despising the darker skinned untouchables who were often viewed and treated as sub-humans.
This explains why Hindu gurus are more than willing to travel to the West to convert rich white Europeans to Hinduism BUT never travel to black Africa to make converts. The truth is that they don't want black people whose skin color is an indication of bad karma. As long as they can sucker rich white people into giving them money ("Money is evil. So give it all to me."). Why bother with darker skinned people?
This can be documented by the statements of many of the gurus who have reaped riches in the West. When one guru was asked on TV what he was doing to help the poor, he responded, "Let the Christians take care of them. I am here to help the rich."
The terrible caste system was invented in order to protect the white Brahmins from polluting their sacred whiteness with black blood. You had to marry and to labor in the caste into which you were born. The lines were clearly drawn and no one was allowed to move from one caste to another by marriage or trade.
The mechanism of the caste system is tied to the Hindu theory of soul-transmigration in which rebirth determines caste. Rebirth was predetermined by karma. Karma was in turn determined by how a person lived in a past life. For example, if a person were to be born with a dark skin to untouchable parents, a life of misery and poverty is the punishment for being evil in a previous life. In other words, a person gets what is deserved.
The poor, the sick, the disabled, the dark-skinned, etc. are what they are because of their own fault. They deserve their suffering because they did something bad in a previous life and karma has caught up with them. A person should not interfere with their suffering because if done, the person will be doomed to experience it in the next life. Thus, it appears that the kindest thing to do is to let them alone so they get their suffering over and hopefully have a better rebirth the next time around.
On the other hand, if one were to be born with white skin to Brahmin parents, a life of wealth and pleasure is the reward for good deeds done in a previous life. There is no moral obligation to help the less fortunate.
The social inequities of Hinduism ultimately led millions of lower caste Indians to abandon Hinduism for Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism or Christianity because those religions did not lock them into a rigid caste system. Social and financial mobility required a change of religion. Of course, if a person were a rich white Brahmin, why convert to a religion that would strip one of social status and wealth?
Being originally fire worshippers, Hinduism developed the grisly practice of burning a widow alive on the funeral pyre of her husband (suttee). If she did not willing jump into the fire, she was often thrown into it by the mob gathered to watch her burn to death.
Child sacrifices to animal gods such as sacred crocodiles were common until this Hindu practice was criminalized by the British. The ritual murder and burial of travelers by the Kali cult (the thugees) is another example of Hinduism's inherently demonic nature and inspiration.
Other immoral practices of Hinduism included using children as sex slaves in Hindu temples. They not only served the sexual perversions of the priests and gurus but were used as prostitutes to bring in money. The poorest of the poor who often could not afford to keep a new child, left the baby in a temple assuming that the child would have a better life with the priests than with its parents. They doomed their child to a life of pain and misery.
The tourist who travels to India's many temples is often shocked by wall art that depicts sodomy, child sex, orgies and bestiality of the grossest kind. Yet, all this is part of what lies at the core of Hinduism.
The same shock is received when tourists see Hindus drinking urine from animals and humans and smearing dung in their hair and on their body. The smell that emanates from the gurus, monks and holy men of Hinduism is enough to warn us that Hinduism is rotten to the core.
Why bring up this discussion of Hinduism with such ugly topics as racism, the caste system, burning of widows, ritual child abuse and gross immorality? To see the true nature of Hinduism we must study what it produces in those societies where it is the dominant religion. Thus a mere abstract philosophic presentation of Hinduism in the classroom will give a false view. Hinduism is far more than a list of abstract dogmas. It is actually a social program that seeks to organize a culture according to Hindu concepts of soul-transmigration, karma, race and caste.The Philosophic Failures of Hinduism
1. Hinduism denies the existence of the infinite/personal triune God of the Bible who exists independent of and apart from the universe which He created out of nothing. It is atheistic in this sense.
2. Hinduism has never solved the problem of the One and Many or the infinite/personal dichotomy.
3. Those Hindus who emphasize the One over the Many teach Monism (All is One) and pantheism (All is God), erasing any distinction between Creator and creation. "God" is an impersonal infinite force or power which manifests itself as the universe around us. The "things" we see around us do not really exist per se. They are only illusions of the One. This is what the high caste Hindus teach the Westerners who come to India in search of "enlightenment."
4. The vast majority of Hindus do not follow the Brahmin doctrine of monism. Instead of emphasizing the One over the Many, they emphasize the Many over the One and practice the vilest forms of polytheism imaginable in which they worship millions of gods and goddesses. It is said that the Hindus worship more gods and goddesses than the total number of Hindus who exist today. They worship snakes, monkeys, elephants, crocodiles, cats, insects and other absurdities.
5. As a world view, Hinduism fails to answer crucial questions:
a. Why does the Universe exist as opposed to not existing? Since it cannot answer this question, Hinduism simply denies the existence of the world around us. It is an illusion (maya) or dream.
b. Is the universe eternal or did it have a beginning? Hinduism has always taught that the universe is eternal. But this has been successfully refuted by modern science. This also exposes an inherent contradiction within Hinduism. If the universe does not exist but is illusionary in nature, how then is it eternal? How can Hinduism speak of the universe going through eternal cycles if the universe does not exist?
c. Why does the Universe exist in such a form that predictability and science are possible? By denying the existence of the world around it, Hinduism did not develop science and cannot explain why it works.
d. What is evil? Once again, since Hinduism can not answer this question, it simply denies that evil exists.
e. Why does evil exist? Hinduism cannot answer this question.
f. What is man? Hinduism denies that we actually exist.
g. How can we explain the uniqueness of man? Hinduism cannot explain why man is distinct from the world around him.
h. Why do we do evil? Hinduism cannot answer this question.
i. What is sin? Because it does not have a concept of a personal/infinite Creator, Hinduism has no concept of "sin" per se.
j. How do we obtain forgiveness for our sins? There is no forgiveness in Hinduism. You will have to suffer in the next life for the evil you do in this present life. This answer exposes an inescapable contradiction within Hindu philosophy. If the universe, evil, and man do not actually exist but are only illusions (Maya), then on what grounds does karma exist? If it does not actually exist either, then on what grounds does reincarnation happen?
k. On what basis can we explain man's desire for meaning, significance, justice, morals, truth and beauty? Hinduism has no answer to these questions.
l. How can we provide a sufficient basis for meaning, significance, justice, morals, truth and beauty? Hinduism cannot provide a philosophic basis for any of these things.
Hinduism did not produce democracy, science or equality among different races and racks of mankind. Instead it produced great social evils, which afflict the Indian people to this day. As a religion and a philosophy, Hinduism is a complete failure and cannot provide a basis for meaning, significance, justice, morals, truth and beauty.A Christian Response to Hinduism
The editor of the periodical Hinduism Today said not too long ago that a "small army of yoga missionaries" has been trained to "set upon the Western world." And in his own words, "They may not call themselves Hindu, but Hindus know where yoga came from and where it goes."
What should be the appropriate Christian perspective on this religion of the East that is making such an impact in the West? At the outset it must be said that as Christians we concur with Hindus on a couple of points. Hindus are correct in their recognition that all is not right with the world and with human existence in it. They are correct as well in suggesting that the ultimate remedy to the human dilemma is spiritual in nature. Beyond these two points, however, there's little common ground between Hinduism and Christianity. What follows are just a few of the more important areas of divergence.
First, Hinduism lacks any understanding that God created this world for a good purpose. It is common for Hindus to speak of God bringing the universe into existence simply as a "playful" exercise of His power. Also lacking is a conception of God as infinitely holy and righteous and as the One to whom we as His creatures are accountable for the way we conduct our lives.
The second major area of contrast between Hinduism and Christianity is the conception of human nature and of the source of our estrangement from God. According to Hindu teaching, man is divine at the core of his being. He is one with God! The problem is that man is ignorant of this fact. He is deceived by his focus on this temporal and material world, and this ignorance gives rise to acts that result in bad karma and traps a person in the cycle of reincarnation.
According to the biblical teaching, however, the source of our alienation from God (and ultimately of all that is imperfect in this world), is not ignorance of our divinity, but our sinful rebellion against God and His purpose for our lives.
This leads to the third and final point of contrast--the way of salvation. According to most Hindu teaching, salvation from the cycle of reincarnation is achieved by a person’s own efforts--whether through good works, meditation, or devotion to a deity. According to the Bible, however, a person’s spiritual need is for deliverance from God's judgment on sin and for restoration to a life under His direction and care. This salvation can be provided only by God's gracious and undeserved action in a person’s behalf.
It is true that in certain Hindu groups there is a similar emphasis on God's grace (probably as a result of past Christian influence). But even here, there is a major distinction. The Hindu teaching about grace sees no need for atonement for sin, but simply offers forgiveness without any satisfaction of the judgment on sin required by a holy God.
In contrast, the Christian gospel is this: God the Son became a man, died a sacrificial death on the cross, making real forgiveness of real sins against the real God possible to those who place complete trust in Christ. All who do so can experience true forgiveness, know God and His purpose for their lives, and have the certainty of eternal life with Him!
Other Notable Differences Between Christianity and Hinduism.
Differences between Hinduism and Christianity are typical of the differences between Eastern and Western religions in general. Here are some examples:
When C.S. Lewis was converted from atheism, he shopped around in the world's religious supermarket and narrowed his choice down to Hinduism or Christianity. Religions are like soups, he said. Some, like consomme, are thin and clear (Unitarianism, Confucianism, modern Judaism); others, like minestrone, are thick and dark (paganism, “mystery religions”). Only Hinduism and Christianity are both “thin” (philosophical) and “thick” (sacramental and mysterious). But Hinduism is really two religions: “thick” for the masses, “thin” for the sages. Only Christianity is both.
Hinduism claims that all other religions are yogas: ways, deeds, paths. Christianity is a form of bhakti yoga (yoga for emotional types and lovers). As previously mentioned in this paper, there is also jnana yoga (yoga for intellectuals), raja yoga (yoga for experimenters), karma yoga (yoga for workers, practical people) and hatha yoga (the physical preliminary to the other four). For Hindus, religions are human roads up the divine mountain to enlightenment — religion is relative to human need; there is no “one way” or single objective truth.
There is, however, a universal subjective truth about human nature: It has “four wants”: pleasure, power, altruism and enlightenment. Hinduism encourages us to try all four paths, confident that only the fourth brings fulfillment. If there is reincarnation and if there is no hell, Hindus can afford to be patient and to learn the long, hard way: by experience rather than by faith and revelation.
Hindus are hard to dialogue with for the opposite reason Moslems are: Most Moslems are intolerant, Hindus are tolerant. Nothing is false; everything is true in a way.
The summit of Hinduism is the mystical experience, called mukti, or moksha: “liberation” from the illusion of finitude, realization that tat tvam asi, “thou art That (Brahman].” At the center of one’s being is not individual ego but Atman, universal self which is identical with Brahman, the All.
This sounds like the most absurd and blasphemous thing one could say: that I am God. But it is not that I, John Smith, am God the Father Almighty. Atman is not ego and Brahman is not God the Father. Hinduism identifies not the immanent human self with the transcendent divine self but the transcendent human self with the immanent divine self. It is not Christianity. But neither is it idiocy.
Martin Buber, in “I and Thou,” suggests that Hindu mysticism is the profound experience of the “original pre-biographical unity” of the self, beneath all forms and contents brought to it by experience, but confused with God. Even Aristotle said that “the soul is, in a way, all things.” Hinduism construes this “way” as identity, or inclusion, rather than knowing: being all things substantially rather than mentally. The soul is a mirror for the whole world.
Having read stories of people who have left Hinduism for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I’ve identified that a common theme runs through their stories. These people left a life of hopelessness, where they were dependent on their own works to escape from samsara, to a life of hope and assurance of their salvation. They left their millions-in-one impersonal gods, and found the one true God of the universe, who cares intimately for each one of them. For this reason, it is important to identify the most basic differences between Hinduism and Christianity.
A vast plurality of gods and goddesses exist as part of the impersonal Brahman.
There is one God, who cares deeply for each one of us.
Humans, as with all living things, are just manifestations of Brahman. We have no individual self, or self-worth.
God created mankind, and gave us free will. He cares deeply for us, and places a great deal of worth on His creation.
The world and everything on it are manifestations of Brahman.
God created the universe, the world, and everything on it. (Genesis 1). As God did not create Himself, the world exists separately from God.
Sin is committed against oneself, not against God.
God gave us rules because He cares about us. He also gave us free will – we can choose to disobey. Disobedience (sin) is an offense against God.
Since “sin” is committed only against oneself, the penalties are accrued only against the self. The penalty is the repeated cycle of rebirths, until you can escape to Nirvana.
Sin cannot exist in the presence of God. Therefore, the penalty of sin is spiritual death, or separation from God.
“For the wages of sin is death…” Romans 6:23a
Salvation is the release from the wheel of life, the cycle of rebirths, through which we must work to better ourselves, and realize our oneness with Brahman. It must be worked out by each individual through successive lives.
Salvation is a free gift to us from God. We must only accept it. We cannot earn it. Jesus bought our salvation by taking all our sin upon Himself on the cross, dying as a sacrifice for us, and then rising from the dead three days later. Salvation means spending eternity in heaven with our Almighty God!
If you are a Hindu man or woman reading this, please know that a greater hope exists. Indeed, it is more than a hope – it is an assurance. You are not relegated to rebirth after rebirth in an attempt to “get it right.” There is a personal God who cares deeply for you. He knows how many hairs you have on your head, yet he controls ever facet of the universe. He loves you and desires to redeem you unto Himself. All you have to do is accept! Indescribable joy awaits you!
I grew up in India till the age of seven before our family moved to the U.S. in 1977. I lived in the U.S. for most of my life with the exception of coming back to India for junior high school. About that time I was getting involved in bad company in Queens. When I went to India not only did I have to relearn Hindi but endure corporal punishment as well. That experience helped me develop a godly fear of authority and taught me to trust God as well.
In 1985 we came back to the U.S. It was in high school that my interest in the Bible started. I used to secretly read it in my room for fear of my parents. All my relatives are Hindus so I had never been introduced to the Bible. The first time my parents found me reading the Bible they were surprised and upset immediately. For me, it was an enlightening experience. The first time I read the book of John, I knew that the Bible was from God. I had no doubt because the words were so convicting and applied beautifully to my life. The teachings were down to earth, compared with Hindu writings which tend towards philosophy and narration primarily. Although my family was not religiously inclined, I always had a desire to know God.
When I went to college in 1988, I was approached by a member of the Church of Christ (not-Mormons) to study the Bible. I started studying with them and was baptized a few months later. Even though I was living away from my parents at college, I did not have the courage to tell them about my conversion until the following summer. Soon, after I told them, my family problems started. At first, my mom considered my conversion as cutting my ties with the Indian community and rejecting their heritage. My dad was concerned that his dreams for me (marriage, career) would be jeopardized by my commitment to God and His Kingdom. At once, he commanded me to come home, but I refused.
That winter my grandmother was ill in India and my dad asked me to accompany him assuming she was dying. Upon arriving to India we found out that she had recovered from her illness and my dad's options for me. After about a week or so, I asked my dad when we were heading back. He told me that I had two options. Either to go back to Albany, NY and live with them or they would leave me in India. I was shocked. He had tricked me! We went to the village where he was born. That's when I found out how upset he really was about my conversion. In front of all his relatives he told them of my conversion and how displeased he was with me. He said that I became a follower of this Jesus.' I had never seen such deep resentment in him before. Meanwhile, all this time our congregation was worried about me.
My relatives pressured me to co-operate with my family and leave the faith. They believed that I was jeopardizing my family's happiness and security in America by being divisive. I was repeatedly reminded of how my dad had painstakingly brought our family to the U.S. from India. It sort of reminded me of how God had saved the Israelites from Egyptian slavery to the promise land. Therefore, my purpose for coming to the States was in order to be freed from my bondage to sin through Christ. I was fulfilling my purpose for coming to America by becoming a Christian. I tried to explain that my only intention was to follow God wherever He may lead me. At this time, I must confess that I had gotten depressed and learned to appreciate the power of prayer and God's word. After two weeks we headed back to the states. My dad assumed that I agreed to his options to live with them in Albany. After exiting immigration, I told him that I was going back to the Stony Brook University instead of with him. Since he could not force me to go with him, he started to cry and plead with me. It took all my energy to walk away. I headed out of the airport. I called some of my brothers from the University and they came to pick me up. My dad followed me back to the university so I some brothers opened their dorm rooms for me. What an encouragement God's family had been to me in my time of difficulty! I could not have done it without their encouragement.
I guess by this time my dad was filled with a combination of anger about life, resentment, and concern for me. His initial attempt was to get me dismissed from the University by hindering my financial aid. He met with the school financial counselor and tried to de-register me from school. Thank God that did not work! We are so fortunate to live in a land like the U.S. where we are blessed with freedoms such as these.
I thought everything was all right and returned to my dorms. A few weeks later, I noticed that I started to develop some fever. I went to the doctor and found out that I had been infected with Malaria while I was in India. I was admitted to the hospital and treated. I had reached a fever of almost 107 degrees Fahrenheit which apparently affect me psychologically. As a result of the high fever and the drugs I was given, I started to hallucinate. I could not think clearly and lost touch with reality. The stress of the situation may have had something to do with it as well. The affect of the medication and the stress took me several years to heal from. God stood by my side and strengthened me as always.
For the next five years the problems continued. It was difficult for my parents to let go of me since I was the eldest son. They used every tactic in the book: emotional, psychological, financial. I would receive phone calls all the time where they would plead with me or try to discourage me from my faith. My university advisor learned about all this and called me in for a meeting. He had been told that I was using the school's funds and resources to practice Christianity. I had several meetings with the school advisor who was told I was in a cult. But the proof was not available and my grades were satisfactory.
I hope that I am not frightening anyone by sharing this experience. Never had I thought that Satan would try to use my own family to try to destroy my faith. Although my parents were trying to seek my interests, their concern was misguided since they have no knowledge of God's grace or Word.
On a positive note, a few years ago my mother accompanied me to Church Worship on Sunday. I often have open discussions about God and her need to trust Him. God has blest me with a great family here on Long Island. God has used them repeatedly to help me deal with my struggles.
God has given me the strength not to give up the faith through His unfailing love. I am grateful that I had persisted in my walk with Christ as I grow to love Him deeply as every day goes by. There is nothing worth comparing to the relationship we have available through Christ.
II Corinthians 1:3-5 sums it up:
[2Cor 1:3] Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort;
[2Cor 1:4] Who gives us comfort in all our troubles, so that we may be able to give comfort to others who are in trouble, through the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
[2Cor 1:5] For as we undergo more of the pain which Christ underwent, so through Christ does our comfort become greater.
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The Experiential Dimension of Advaita Vedanta, by Arvind Sharma, hardcover, September 1993.
Vedanta: Voice of Freedom, by Swami Vivekananda (Editor), hardcover, March 1990.
What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By, by Louis Cassels, Hardcover, 1965.
Yoga & the Spiritual Life: The Journey of India's Soul, by Sri Chinmoy.
Sources for Further Reading
On The Vedas
Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 32 and 42 and 46 (42 Atharva Veda). Sacred Books and Literature of the East, Vol. 9
A. A. Macdonell, Hymns of the Big-Veda, Association Press, Calcutta, 1922.
R. T. H. Griffith, Hymns of the Rig-Veda, E. J. Lazarus, Benares, 2nd Edition, 1896-1897.
On The Brahmanas
Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 12 and 44.
Harvard Oriental Series, Vol. 25.
Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Vol. 9.
On The Upanishads
Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 1 and 15.
H. E. Hume, Thirteen Principal Upanishads, Charles Scribner’s Sons, N. Y
On The Epics
Romesh Dutt, The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Everyman’s Edition, E. P. Dutton and Company, N. Y., 1929.
Sir Edwin Arnold, Indian Idylls, Roberts Brothers, Boston. The Ramayana, translated by R. T. H. Griffith, 5 Vols.
On The Bhagavad Gita
Sir Edwin Arnold, The Song Celestial, Roberts Brothers, Boston, 1885. It has appeared in many editions.
Franklin Edgerton, The Bhagavad Gita, 2 Vols., Harvard University Press, 1946.
S. Radhakrishnan, The Bhagavad Gita with Sanskrit Text and English translation and notes, Harper and Brothers, N. Y., 1948.
There are nearly two score English translations in circulation.
On The Legal Literature
Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 2, 7,14 and 25. The last is the most famous Laws of Manu.
On The Puranas
H. W. Wilson, The Vishnu Purana, 5 vols., London, 1864 --1877.
In the Anthologies
Hindu Scripture, edited by Nicol MacNicol, Everyman’s Library, J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1938.
The Wisdom of China and India, edited by Lin Yutang, Random House, Inc., NewYork, 1942, pp. 1-315.
Harvard Classics, Vol. 45, pp. 799-884.
Lewis Browne, The World’s Great Scriptures, pp. 57-132.
Ruth Smith, The Tree of Life, pp. 71-114.
Ballon, The Bible of the World, pp. 3-180.
Grace Turnbull, Tongues of Fire, pp. 27-42, 245-267.
Frost, Sacred Writings of the World’s Great Religions, pp. 9-68.
Sohrab, The Bible of Mankind, pp. 31-90.