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HINDUISM: A PORTRAIT

by Dr. T. K. Venkateswaran
Professor of Religious Studies (Emeritus), University of Detroit; former
Research Scholar, Harvard University; member, International Advisory
Council, The Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions; member,
International Board of Advisors, The Temple of Understanding

Introduction

Hinduism is the oldest and perhaps the most complex of all the living, historical world religions. It has no one single identifiable founder. The actual names found for the religion in the Hindu scriptures are Vedic Religion, i.e. the Religion of the Vedas (Scriptures) and Sangtana Dharma, i.e. the Universal or Perennial Wisdom and Righteousness, the "Eternal Religion." Hinduism is not merely a religion, however. It encompasses an entire civilization and way of life, whose roots date back prior to 3000 BCE, beyond the peoples of Indus Valley culture. Yet, since the time of the Vedas, there is seen a remarkable continuity, a cultural and philosophical complexity and also a pattern of unity in diversity that evolved in the course of its history, also a demonstrated propensity for deep integration and assimilation of all new and external influences.


Main Sources of Religious Knowledge

Scriptures:

  1. The four Vedas -- Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas -- are seen as Sruti, "heard," as Revelation and "not human-originated," though human beings, wise and holy sages, seers and prophets were the human channels of the revealed wisdom. They "heard" in their hearts the eternal messages and "saw" and symbolized various names and forms of the One, Sacred, Ultimate Reality, Truth, God from different perspectives and contexts. The Hindu gods and goddesses, worshipped with different names and forms and qualities are, in reality, many aspects, powers, functions, and symbols of the only One all-pervasive Supreme Being, without a second. The Upanishads, later portions in the Vedas, teach that salvation/liberation is achieved in an experiential way and that oneness with the supreme Reality, Brahman, is possible; the supreme goal, Brahman, is also the One Self, the higher Self found in all. The philosophy and spiritual practice is known as Vedanta.

  2. The Agamas (Further Scriptures) teach union with God as the Lord, the Highest Person, Brahman seen in the process of action.
Supplements to the Scriptures:
  1. Smritis (works of Hindu Law, etc.).

  2. The two epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (along with the Bhagavad Gita in the latter, seen almost as an autonomous scripture) and the various Puranas.

Basic Beliefs, Values, Paradigms and Teachings

The one all-pervasive supreme Being is both immanent and transcendent, both supra-personal and highest person (God), who can be worshipped as both Father and/or Mother of the universe.

The universe undergoes endless cycles of creation, preservation and dissolution. All souls are evolving and progressing toward union with God and everyone will ultimately attain salvation/ liberation.

Karma is the moral and physical law of cause and effect by which each individual creates one's own future destiny by accepting responsibility and accountability for one's own thoughts, words and deeds, individual and collective.

The individual soul reincarnates, evolving through many births and deaths, until all the karmic results, good and bad, are resolved. One can and should strive to attain liberation from this cycle of constant births and deaths in this very life, by pursuing one of the four spiritual paths to God-realization -- the ways of Knowledge, Love and Devotion, Selfless Action, and Meditation.

Four aims or goals in life are arranged hierarchically: the joy cluster (sensual, sexual, artistic, aesthetic joys, compatible with ethics), the economic and social fulfillment cluster, the morality cluster (duties, obligations, right action, law, righteousness, general virtues, and supreme ethical values, etc.), and the spiritual goal of salvation/liberation (union and oneness with God). All the elements that are usually seen as exclusive or antagonistic in life are brought together in this holistic model, in which every goal has its own place.

Each individual passes through several stages in his/her journey through life toward the spiritual goal. The four classical stages in life are: (1) the student, (2) the house-holder, (3) retirement to the woods for spiritual pursuits and (4) renunciation (optional). Within each stage are specific goals which provide a practical model for the organization of life.

Divine aspects and elements of God, the "presence," are invoked through ritual symbolism and prayers in consecrated images and icons for purposes of worship. God also "descends," periodically, in incarnations and historical personalities such as Rama and Krishna.

All life is sacred and is to be loved and revered, through the practice of nonviolence, realizing that there is unity and inter-dependency among all forms of life and all aspects of the universe. Exemplary spiritual teachers (gurus) who themselves are liberated in this life help the spiritual aspirants with their knowledge and compassion.

No particular religion (including Hinduism) teaches the only, exclusive way to God and salvation, above all others. All authentic, genuine religious paths and traditions lead to the One God and are facets of God's love and light, deserving proper respect, mutual tolerance, and right understanding.

Hindu Sub-traditions (sampradayas)

The One Brahman is conceived and symbolized according to divine functions as Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Sustainer and Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer of evils and the Dissolver of the universe). This is referred to as the Hindu Trinity.

Within the Great Tradition of Hinduism are four main, living sub- traditions, called sampradayas: (1) Shaivites (2) Vaishnavites (3) Shaktas and (4) Smartas. The differences are based upon conceptions and worship of the central name, form, symbols, liturgies, mythologies and theologies of the One God, Lord and highest Person, as Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti (the Divine as Mother), etc. Smartas worship, equally, several personal manifestations of the supreme Reality and philosophically emphasize the ultimate identity-experience of the individual self with the supreme Self, which is also Brahman.

Hinduism has a vast network of sacred symbols. Some are drawn from sacred geography like the Ganges River, others are drawn from plant, bird and animal life; other symbols include profound polyvalent (multi-level meanings) symbols such as the sacred sound-syllable Om (also written as AUM) which contains all reality, and Shiva's icon as the "Cosmic Dancer," fulfilling all the divine functions.


Approaches to Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation

There are several hymns in the Vedas and other scriptures which categorically declare that there are different approaches and perspectives to God and experience of God and ultimate reality. This also arises, necessarily, from different human contexts. The central teaching, constantly repeated, is: God is One, but names and forms are many; symbols and paths are many. Thus, there arose a rich theological and philosophical pluralism within Hinduism creating an internal "parliament of sub-traditions and sub-religions," but all grounded in the unity of the Vedas and One Brahman. Also, multiplicity is encouraged and thrives by means of the free choice and self-determined identification with one specially loved manifestation of God -- Shiva, Krishna, Shakti, Rama, and so on -- in pursuing the moral and spiritual path to salvation/liberation.

Because people are at different starting points and stations, Hindu scriptures affirm and accept variety in religious experiences as a necessity and psychological reality. This wisdom is extended to other non-Hindu religions as a spontaneous and logical outflow of the same ethos. There is no historical tradition or theological necessity in Hinduism for proselytization or conversion of non-Hindus to Hinduism. All authentic religions and traditions, all over the world, rising from different historical and cultural starting points and contexts, are to be respected, accepted, appreciated and cherished.

Multiplicity brings with it differences, which one cannot destroy or do away with. Yet, the deep commonalities in structures of religious experience and in the profound moral values found in all religions are to be constantly probed and appropriated for the development of a deeper spiritual and human solidarity and fellowship, transcending the cultural and other barriers. At the same time, the distinctive theological and core-symbol elements and central rites of all religions are to be respected in dialogue and interrelations, based on correct and accurate understandings and on mutual empathy. All should work together to eliminate, in the future, horrors that have been committed in the name of God and religion. Truth values are equally important to the values of religious satisfaction.


Primary Challenges Facing Humanity at this Time

Our age has deteriorated to an age of quick fixes of meaning from sources such as science and the media; it has become an analgesic culture. Our contemporary metaphors, symbols and signals are mixed, confused and contradictory. Several examples can show that we live in a mosaic of fragmentation in consciousness, with nothing to hold the pieces together, nothing beneath to connect them and provide a meaningful substratum. We inhabit several historical ages simultaneously.

Social stability and participation in a common good have vastly eroded; we lack a broad consensus where an intricate web of mutual obligations and an accepted network of responsibilities uphold society. Family integrities are threatened.

Cultural and ecological balance and harmony in the universe are being depleted. Economic and technological progress has limits. It now seems unlikely that the wasteful affluence of the West can become available to all. Everyone should learn to endure more weal and woe equally, develop more patience, and pursue real quality of life on the planet, which is not found in the acquisitive amassing of material goods.

Uncontrolled population growth has become another global war, a war which must be won. Religious, cultural, and ethnic hatreds are on the increase; horrors of unprecedented scale, violence, and cruelty are being unleashed in different parts of the world. Group identities and ideologies are being sanctified and absolutized.

Holistic human development and the complete fulfillment of all needs -- material, moral and spiritual -- have been lost from view; physical and mental health and the quality of our lifestyles have deteriorated.

Depersonalization caused by mega-cities and technology continues to cheapen the richness and meaning of human joys and life. Computer simulations usurp relationships and are on the verge of providing the most intimate pleasures, on-line, providing virtual sex.


How Do Members of the Hindu Community Respond to These Issues?

The responses of both the Hindu community and contemporary Hinduism are briefly summarized below. Some of these responses are still modest.

There is a renewed and vigorous interest in restoring the rich, polyvalent Hindu myths and their moral, philosophical, and spiritual impact through new artforms, media ventures, etc. Of all the peoples, Hindus never abandoned their myths through excessive de-mythologization and heavy rationalization, as happened in the West. If the body needs a house and nourishing food, provided by latest technologies, the soul equally needs an abode in which to grow. In Hinduism, the religious myths built that house and provided a unified and integrated vision of life. One cannot live with values that are only contingent and ephemeral. Hindu art and myths save one from the one-sided, reductionistic understanding of reality. It should be carefully noted that myth is different from verbal dogma and ideology. They also help to raise the human consciousness to the highest levels and heal fragmentations.

The "four-fold goals" scheme and the "four-stages in life" paradigm, found in the Hindu Dharma, are both needed for holistic human development. These are now being carefully re-studied in their contemporary contexts with help and insight derived from the social sciences. Further relevant interpolations and applications are being generated, with universal implications. Too much emphasis on individual rights has somewhat torn the intricate and delicate network of obligations and duties that are necessary to sustain and uphold family integrity, restore a sense of community, and foster world-responsibilities. This shredded fabric has thwarted the creation of abilities and energies needed to create new forms of consensus on the common good.

One of the central definitions of God (Brahman) found in the Vedas is Rta, which is manifested in the universe and also on planet Earth. Rta also has mystery and transcendental dimensions, with many meanings, including Order, Balance, Harmony, Law, Unified Life-Energy and the principle of Intelligence. The divine Rta is the foundational and fundamental norm of existence, the ground of cosmic and human morality and intelligence. To be fully and really rational is also to be fully moral. Satya (Truth) and Rta are two sides to the same Divine. Divinity should not be segregated from creation and the all-embracing presence should be constantly felt. This truth, a vital part of the Hindu tradition, is being researched and re-probed to formulate sound environmental and ecological policies and programs at the highest levels. The aim is to seek to restore cultural and ecological balance and harmony, including new population- management and family planning programs with a Hindu ethos, combined with the latest scientific help.

Preventive medicine as seen and practiced in the ancient Hindu medicine-texts and life-sciences such as Ayurveda and yoga- manuals, along with the already established and well-documented mind-body connections found in those ancient texts, have spurred vast new research and applications world-wide, with future relevance for all. Renewed interest in and use of ancient meditation-systems and techniques is supported by pioneering brain-studies, consciousness research and new mind-body behavior modifications techniques; together these are pointing toward renewed physical, mental, and spiritual health in humanity.


Conclusion

The respect within Hinduism for other religions has been discussed in detail. Beyond that, Hindus everywhere are actively promoting and aggressively participating in interfaith dialogues and other interreligious projects. The constant message is: one should not delimit or circumscribe God by one's own concepts or by one's own religion or world-views.

Taken from A SourceBook for Earth's Community of Religions


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