Hinduism: Central Doctrines | 3



There are many Hindu schools of thought and practice and many Hindu communities:

Only a few ideas and concepts are common to most Hindus. There is no creed or pillar of faith and no doctrine that all Hindus must believe in to be considered Hindus.

Nevertheless, many schools of philosophy have held that acceptance of the sacred compositions called the Vedas as a source of divine authority is a litmus test of orthodoxy.

Hindu doctrines are expressed and transmitted by epic narratives, which are frequently performed as music, dance, recitation, and drama.

The sophisticated and extensive written traditions in Sanskrit and other languages have been the province of a small percentage of educated scholars.

In the Hindu tradition there are numerous gods and goddesses and many books and stories about them:

According to one account, a conversation in the Upanishads (Hindu sacred texts composed in about the 7th century B.C.E.), there are three hundred million gods and goddesses.

In the course of this conversation the question “How many are there?” is reiterated several times until the final answer is given: just one.

Thus, it is correct to say that Hindus worship many gods and one god:

Ultimately, the Supreme Being is infinite and beyond words—the same being can therefore be said to be both one and many. To deny the manifoldness or the unity of the Supreme Being would be to deny its infinity.

Hindus may say that they worship One God, even as they recite prayers and sing in devotion to the many deities of the Hindu pantheon.

Some Hindus claim that, although there are many deities, only one is supreme.

Others say that all gods and goddesses are equal but that one is their favourite or that their family worships a particular deity.

Some believe that there is only one god, and all other deities are manifestations of that being.

Many Hindus contend that numbers are like gender— they are human ideas foisted upon the divine.

The Upanishads call the Supreme Being Brahman. Brahman is considered to be ineffable and beyond all human comprehension. Other texts, such as the Purāṇas, say that this Supreme Being assumes a form and a name to make itself accessible to human beings.

Viewed from these perspectives, Hindus speak of the Supreme Being

as being both Nirguṇa (“without attributes,” specifically “without inauspicious attributes”) and saguṇa (“with attributes” such as grace and mercy).

Some texts identify this Supreme Being as the god Vishnu (“all-pervasive”);
others call it Shiva (“the auspicious one”).

Still others believe that the Supreme Being assumes the form of the Goddess and is called Shakti (Sanskrit for “energy”), Durgā, Kālī, or any one of a thousand names.

Although Vishnu, Shiva, and the Goddess are the most important gods in the texts,

others—such as Gaṇeśa (a son of Pārvatī); Kārtikeya, or Murugan (a son of Shiva); and Hanuman (a devotee of Rāma, an incarnation of Vishnu)—are popular among Hindus.

Gaṇeśa is depicted as riding a mouse. Hindus worship him before beginning any new task or before embarking on any journey or project.

Devotees of any deity may perceive him or her to be the Supreme Being.

In some early accounts there was an idea of a trinity sharing various functions:
Brahma was the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer.

This idea, however, was never really popular except in art and sculpture, and in time Brahma (a minor creator god who worked under the orders of a powerful being) became marginal. The functions of creation, preservation, and destruction were combined.

Shiva is one of the most important deities within the Hindu tradition:

The manifold aspects of Shiva’s power are expressed by his simultaneous and often paradoxical roles: threatening but benevolent, creator but destroyer, exuberant dancer but austere yogi (practitioner of yoga).

He is depicted as an ascetic and as the husband of the goddess Pārvatī. Stories of his saving powers describe him granting wisdom and grace to his devotees.

Many Hindus also deify natural phenomena such as rivers.
Hindus revere planets and propitiate the nava-graha (nine planets) with rituals:

The “9 planets” include the Sun, the Moon, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and two mythical entities called Rahu and Ketu, identified with the ascending and descending nodes of the Moon.

In addition to the pan-Hindu deities there are many local gods and goddesses who may have distinctive histories and functions.

Because some of the deities have specific functions, a person may worship a particular deity for career success, a particular goddess for a cure from illness, and so on.

Hindus pride themselves on being part of a tradition that has continuously venerated the divine in female form for more than 2 000 years:

The Goddess, sometimes called Devi in Sanskrit literary tradition, has usually been seen as a manifestation of Pārvatī, the wife of Shiva:

In her beneficent aspect she is frequently called Ambā or Ambikā (little mother).

As a warrior goddess she is Durgā, represented in iconography with a smiling countenance but a handful of weapons (which shows that she is ready to help her devotees). Durgā is one of the most popular goddesses in India.

As Kālī, the Goddess is a dark, dishevelled figure with a garland of skulls. Even in this manifestation she is called “mother” by her devotees.

There are local goddesses in every part of India. In some regions a goddess may be known only by the provincial name and celebrated with local stories.

Many texts speak of the relationship between the human soul (ātman) and the Supreme Being (Brahman), but invariably they suggest rather than declare the connection between the two:

For instance, in a conversation in the Chāṇḍogya Upanishad, a father asks his son to dissolve salt in water and says that Brahman and Ātman are united in a similar manner.

The father ends his teaching with the well-known dictum “tat tvam asi” (you are that). In this statement, the “that” refers to Brahman and the “you” to Ātman.

Philosophers who later interpreted this passage understood it in different ways:

The philosopher Shankara (c. 8th century C.E.) wrote that “you are that” means that Brahman and Ātman are the same identity.

On the other hand, Rāmānuja (11th century) interpreted it to mean that, while Brahman and Ātman are inseparably united, they are not identical.

Shankara’s philosophy came to be called non-dualist
that is, there is no ultimate distinction between Brahman and Ātman.

Rāmānuja’s philosophy, which nuances this identity,
is called “qualified non-dualism” by later devotees.

Other philosophers declared that the human soul and the Supreme Being are different:

The philosophy of Madhva (13th century) is known as “dualism” because he speaks about the real and eternal difference between the human soul and the Supreme Being.

According to Hindu thought, there is a quest for a higher, experiential knowledge, the knowledge of Brahman. The Upanishads distinguish “lower” knowledge, or that which can be conceptualized and articulated, from the “higher” knowledge of true wisdom:

This higher wisdom comes from experientially knowing the relationship between the human soul (ātman) and the Supreme Being (Brahman). Brahman pervades and yet transcends the universe as well as human thought. Ultimately, Brahman cannot be described.

According to many Upanishads, to know Brahman completely is to reach the ultimate goal of human beings: to enter a new state of consciousness. This state is said to be ineffable; with our lower conceptual knowledge, we cannot put into words what is ultimately beyond words.

The notions of karma and reincarnation are common to the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions.

Karma literally means “action,” especially ritual action, but it has come to mean the system of rewards and punishments attached to various actions:

Thus, it refers to a system of cause and effect that may span several lifetimes. The law of karma dictates that human beings are rewarded or punished according to their behaviour.

Actions produce merit or demerit, and this will affect the quality of one’s future life, either in this lifetime or several lifetimes later. Good deeds and bad deeds do not balance each other out; one has to experience the results of good actions and bad actions.

The idea of karma is closely connected with the concept of the immortality of the soul:

Although in the early Vedas there was only a nebulous notion of the afterlife, by the time of the Upanishads the human soul was said to live beyond death.

Thus, the theory of karma also implies continuing rebirths (samsāra). Liberation from them (moksha), according to the Upanishads, comes from a supreme, experiential, transforming wisdom:

When one gets this transforming knowledge, one is never reborn and never dies; one is immortal. Ultimately, therefore, even good karma is to be avoided, for it ties one to the cycle of reincarnation.

In general, the texts do not discuss the details of what happens immediately after death or what happens to a soul between lifetimes. Only the truly evolved souls are said to remember all their past lives.

Some theistic texts speak about the soul’s journey after death:

If the soul is emancipated, it is said to cross a river called Virajā (“without passion”) and enter a heaven-like place called Vaikuṇṭha or Kailāśa. Vaikuṇṭha is Vishnu’s abode, and Shiva lives in Kailāśa.

Philosophical texts of the Hindu tradition give various accounts of what happens to the soul when it is liberated from the cycle of life and death.

The many Hindu texts describe different relationships between the human soul and the Supreme Being.

Theistic philosophies (which assert the ultimate reality of a personal deity) speak about a devotional relationship being joyously experienced in the afterlife.

Some theistic schools think of the ultimate liberation as a state of passionate separation between the human soul and God:

God is thought of as Kṛṣṇa in this tradition, and the soul is cast in the role of one of Kṛṣṇa’s cowherd girlfriends, who felt the intensity of their love for him only when separated from him.

While many texts speak about the miserable nature of this life and urge people to seek the everlasting “real” life of liberation, others say that glorifying God on Earth is like experiencing heaven in this lifetime.

Sacred pilgrimage centres are considered to be a break in the earthly rhythm and to reflect divine revelation. In this devotional context, some Hindus consider life on Earth to be a joyful experience comparable to the status of liberation.

Although reincarnation and liberation are the most frequently discussed aspects of the afterlife, some of the Purāṇas talk of many kinds of heavens and hells.

In some texts, seven states of netherworlds and seven heavens are described in detail. Different kinds of karma may entail rebirth in these states of heavens or hells.

The difference between the hells in Hindu texts and the Judeo-Christian notion of hell is that, within the Hindu tradition, a soul’s stay in hells is temporary.

Hindu texts recognize a heaven that could be permanent (Vaikuṇṭha) as well as those that are like a temporary paradise (svarga):

Descriptions of temporary paradises include dancing girls and wish-fulfilling trees—standard, generic imagery of an androcentric (male-centred) place of delight.

A soul is reborn in these paradises if it has certain kinds of karma; once this karma is exhausted, the soul moves on into a different kind of life form.

For more than 2,500 years the religious traditions of India have portrayed the human being as caught in a cycle of life and death. The way out of this misery is to seek and obtain liberation from the cycle.

There are several paths to liberation.
These can be divided into 2 general perspectives.

The first perspective is characteristic of the Hindu traditions that believe that the human soul (Ātman) is identical to the Supreme Being (Brahman) and that liberation is the final, experiential knowledge that one is, in fact, divine.

The teacher Shankara (c. 8th century C.E.) described this worldview best.

His followers (and those who belong to some other schools) ultimately emphasize human effort and striving, which will result in the transforming wisdom.

The second perspective on paths to liberation comes from the theistic schools that speak of an ultimate distinction between the human being and God. Proponents of this worldview advocate devotion to the Supreme Being and reliance on God’s grace.

The Bhāgavad Gītā (“Sacred Song”) discusses the ways to liberation. Some Hindus say that the text portrays multiple paths to the divine, and others say that all paths are aspects of one discipline.

In the course of the Bhāgavad Gītā Kṛṣṇa, talking to the warrior Arjuna, describes 3 ways to liberation: the way of action (karma yoga), the way of knowledge (jñāna yoga), and the way of devotion (bhakti yoga).

The way of action (karma yoga) entails the path of unselfish action:

a person must do his or her duty (dharma), but it should not be done either for fear of punishment or for hope of reward. By discarding the fruits of one’s action, one attains abiding peace.

The second is the way of knowledge (Jñāna yoga). Through attaining scriptural knowledge, a person may achieve a transforming wisdom that destroys his or her past karma.

True knowledge is an insight into the real nature of the universe, divine power, and the human soul. This wisdom may be acquired through learning texts from a suitable and learned teacher (guru), meditation, and physical and mental control in the form of the discipline called yoga.

Later philosophers say that when a person hears scripture, asks questions, clarifies doubts, and eventually meditates on this knowledge, he or she achieves liberation.

The third way, the way of devotion (bhakti yoga), is the most emphasized throughout the Bhāgavad Gītā. Ultimately, Kṛṣṇa makes his promise to Arjuna: If a person surrenders to the Lord, he will forgive the human being all sins.

Bhakti yoga is perhaps the most popular path among Hindus:

Many consider the only way to get salvation to be devotion to a god or goddess, surrendering oneself to that deity, and leaving oneself open to divine grace.

Others believe that karma yoga, the way of “detached action,” is the best way to get rid of karma and acquire liberation from the cycle of life and death. This is acting for the good of humanity and not with selfish motives. It is believed that by doing all action in a compassionate manner, one can get supreme liberation.

Jñāna yoga, the path of striving with wisdom and yoga, is considered laudable but are not practiced much by the average Hindu.

Yoga entails physical and mental discipline by which a person “yokes” his or her spirit to a god:

It has been held in high regard in many Hindu texts and has had many meanings in the history of the Hindu tradition. Its origins are obscure, but it is generally thought to have come from non-Āryan sources.

Many Hindus associate yoga with Patañjali (c. 3rd century B.C.E.) and consider his text, the Yoga Sūtras (composed of short, fragmentary, and aphoristic sentences), significant. Yoga was probably an important feature of religious life in India several centuries before the text was written.

Patañjali’s yoga requires moral, mental, and physical discipline; it involves meditation on a physical or mental object as the single point of focus.

Proper bodily posture is one of the unique characteristics in the discipline of yoga. Detaching the mind from the domination of external sensory stimuli is also important.

Perfection in concentration (dhāraṇa) and meditation (dhyāna) lead one to samādhi, the final state of absorption into, and union with, the divine.

Samādhi has many stages, the ultimate of which is a complete emancipation from the cycle of life and death:

The state is spoken of variously as a coming together, uniting, and transcending of polarities; the state is empty and full, it is neither life nor death, and it is both. In short, this final liberation cannot be adequately described in human language.

While many scholars consider Patañjali’s yoga to be the classical form of yoga, there are dozens of other varieties:

At the broadest level the word has been used to designate any form of meditation or practice with ascetic tendencies. More generally, it is used to refer to any path that leads to final emancipation.

Since the 19th and 20th centuries a distinction between 2 avenues of discipline—Rāja Yoga and Hatha Yoga— has been drawn:

Rāja Yoga deals with mental discipline;
occasionally, this term is used interchangeably with Patañjali’s yoga.

Hatha Yoga largely focuses on bodily posture and control over the body.
This form of yoga is what has become popular in Western countries.

A philosophical and ritual practice called Tantra (which etymologically means “loom”) began to gain importance in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions in about the 5th century:

The Tantric tradition influenced many sectarian Hindu movements:

Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Śakta (pertaining to Shakti, or the Goddess) temple liturgies, still practiced, are in large measure derived from tantric usage. Much of Tantra has fused with devotional practices and is no longer known officially as “tantra.”

In some forms of the Tantric tradition we find an emphasis on a form of yoga known as kundalini yoga. The term kundalini refers to the Shakti (power of the Goddess) that is said to lie coiled at the base of one’s spine:

When awakened, this power rises through a passage and 6 chakras, or “wheels,” to reach the final wheel, or centre, located under the skull. This final chakra is known as a thousand-petalled lotus.

The ultimate aim of this form of yoga is to awaken the power of the kundalini and make it unite with Puruṣa, the male Supreme Being, who is in the thousand-petalled lotus.

With this union the practitioner is granted several visions and given psychic powers.
The union leads eventually to final emancipation.

Whereas concepts of the deity, reincarnation, and the immortality of the soul are central to the texts, in practice many Hindus focus on notions of purity and pollution, auspiciousness and inauspiciousness.

Ritual purity is not directly linked to moral purity. Certain actions, events, substances, and even classes of people can be ritually defiling.

Thus, urinating, menstruating, the shedding of blood (even during childbirth), death, and some castes traditionally perceived to be “low” can be polluting.

Physical cleansing or the lapse of certain time periods restores the ritual purity to a person or a family. While many of these practices are no longer followed, many held sway until the mid-20th century.

A few practices, such as menstruation taboos, continue to be followed in some sectors of society, including by some people in urban situations and in the diaspora.

Concepts of what is auspicious and what is not are significant in understanding Hindu life: Certain times of the day, week, month, and year are propitious.

In general, what is life-affirming and what increases the quality of life is considered to be auspicious.

The right hand is associated with auspicious activities, such as gift-giving, eating, and wedding rituals. The left hand is associated with the inauspicious: insults, bodily hygiene, and funeral (including ancestral) rituals.

Doctrinally and theistically, the Hindu tradition is pluralistic. Each one of the many traditions (sampradāyas) of Hinduism has specific doctrines and a precise theology.

These theologies have been articulated with faith and in great detail, and the several commentaries hammer out the nuances of every word.

Thus, if we look at individual traditions, we find that they are doctrine-specific; if we take Hinduism as a whole, we find a spectrum of ideas and concepts.