By Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
In my aspiration to delve into the perception of divine mind I find no better religion than my own – Hinduism. I was born a Hindu, but I never knew what Hinduism is until late in life, when I did some theological research. There is no written text in Hinduism except the Bhagavad-Gita.
The Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Lord) or Gita for short, is a concise guide to Hindu theology. It contains a mere 18 chapters and 700 verses. It is an Upanishad containing the essence of Vedic knowledge.
I have always remembered the first verse of chapter 1 of the Gita from my boyhood days: dharna-khetre kuru-khetre samaveta yuyutsava mamakah pandvas kaiva kim akurvata sanjay? Translated in English: [Dhratarastra said] O sanjay, what did my sons who are fond of battle and the sons of Pandu do after assembling at the holy land of Kurukhetra?
Hinduism or Hindu Dharma is not a religion though it is the oldest religion practised by nearly 1 billion people. It is a way of life. There is no single, comprehensive philosophical doctrine shared by all Hindus. The term “Hindu” is derived from “Sindhu”- the name of the Indus River, which is not cognate with Hinduism. It embraces Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs.
There are numerous sects in Hinduism. The main divisions are Vaishnavism (Krishna followers), Shaivism (Shiv followers) and Shaktism (Kali followers). These denominations share beliefs and traditions though they do not share rituals. They have different philosophies on how to achieve the ultimate goal or moksha (release from the recycling of life).
Indian philosophical system cites the Vedas (knowledge) as the scriptural authority of the Hindus. Vedic people had “Sanatan (eternal) dharma” – a sort of tribal religion.
In Hinduism there are myths, rituals and devices to realize the Super-soul (Maha-atma) or Brahma, through them Hindus experience the mystical feeling for the unspoilt radiation of creation.
Hinduism is animistic, polytheistic and pantheistic at the base, but at the top there is the concept of God (Ishwar) as a Maha Atma (Supreme Being).
Mythology is the main foundation of Hinduism that eternally swims in the vast ocean of mystique. It dates back to 5,000 years when the Rigveda, the first Veda was composed.
The Vedic people saw God’s presence in nature. They worshiped the sun, the moon, the sky, the mountains, the rivers, the rain, animals and plants. They venerated the Tulsi plant (Indian balsam) as the mythological wife (Lakshmi) of Vishnu.
The post-Vedic – Puranic texts typically contain a complete narrative of the history of the universe from creation to destruction through their demigods. There are 18 canonical Puranas, which are grouped in three categories, each named after a deity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva (Trinity).
In the Puranic period the Vedic gods began to assume certain forms and individual characters. The concept of Tinmurti (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) — the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer was accepted. In the late Puranic period the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata were compiled. The Trinity is the Absolute (Godhead), which is represented by the sound “Om”- the primal word of God. The concept of Om is vast. It is the invocation of the Godhead. It helps one in concentration during meditation (Chandogya Upanishad 1.1.1).
There are four Vedas – Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Aryans prayed to gods by performing rituals (mimamsa) with animal sacrifices and with the right incantations (mantras) from the Vedas.
The Rigveda is the oldest. The hymns of Rigveda contain polytheism, monotheism, monism and anthropomorphism (humanisation of natural objects). It contains a collection of about 1,017 hymns in praise of gods and the wonders of the natural elements.
The Yajurveda contains many mantras mainly dealing with sacrifice. The Samaveda deals with many mantras of Rigveda but with instructions of their tunes for incantation. The Atharvaveda contains hymns for life and time. It also contains many references to non-Vedic practices of the Viratas, (indigenous people), especially their prayers and opposition to Vedic animal sacrifice.
One of the most important Mantra in the Rigveda is the Gayatri mantra. Most Hindus recite it everyday. It exhorts the worshippers to contemplate and adore the knowledge and power of the Creator who infuses the intellectual faculties in us.
The social life of the Vedic people mainly revolved around performing a ‘yagya’. This is a ritual of the sacred fire to propitiate the deities. In the post-Vedic era, Pitru Tarpan or ancestor worship became an established Aryan ritual.
The next set of scriptures is 108 Upanishads and 12 of these are the major ones. They contain the essence of the Hindu way of life, the identity of the Brahma (Godhead), the Jiv-atman (living being), and Atma (soul or self)). They elaborate on how the soul can be united with the Godhead through meditation as well as the practice of ‘karma’ (deed). In this period, the emergence of Hindu Monotheism is recorded. This was the time when the nomadic, hunter-gatherer tribes of Aryans began to settle down. They began to cluster themselves into likeminded groups known as Gotras (cowsheds) such as carpenters and cowherds. There were 49 established gotras. A gotra defines a group of families or lineage, exogamous and patrilineal. It is essential during the performance of ‘puja’ (adoration worship) of Hindu culture. There was no Caste system; only four ‘varna’ (groups) – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra. The present caste system in its barbarity sprang up with the fall of Buddhism following the reign of Ashoka. There was a revival of Hinduism led by a Hindu reformer Shankara from Kerala in the 8th century CE.
Shankara was helped by Kumarila and the Brahmins to destroy Buddhism in India, enlisting the physical power of the Rajputs. Then the Brahmins created the caste system from varna and they put themselves on the top as the educated puja-performing elite. In this period, cow- eating by Hindus was prohibited in order to excel the Buddhist restriction of animal sacrifice, and to prevent conversion to Buddhism. The most important part of Indian philosophical system is the Vedanta (end of Vedas). During the post-Vedic era many indigenous Indian cultures began to seep in. The concept of Hinduism began to emerge.
The great exponent of the Vedanta was Shankara. The Vedanta philosophy consists of two schools of thought: one is ‘advaita’- monism, advocated by Shankara (8th century) and ‘dvaita’ – dualism, propounded by Ramanuja (11th century) and Madhava (13th century)
In monism there is only the Brahma (Ishwar). The external body or the external world is an illusion (Maya). The Brahma and the atma are the same. In dualism, Ishwar and the world exist separately but not differently. Brahma is the unification of all these but the individual or living atma (jivit-atma) is separate from Ishwar. Ramanuja systemically organised Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu) on an intellectual basis. He had a clear philosophy that God (Brahma) and the individual soul (jiva or atma) have separate existences.
Madhava, in the thirteenth century started the Bhakti movement (similar to ISKCON) among the Tamil lower class people. It is the concept that in order to reach the Godhead one has to approach through Bhakti (selfless devotion to God).
Krishna, another indigenous bhakti icon (literal meaning black in Tamil) was also around this time of the Mahabharata.
The cult of Bhakti is a ‘sadhana’ (a spiritual discipline). Its philosophy is that one does not require a great knowledge of God-philosophy but all that one has to do is to devote oneself to a personal god like Krishna with a lot of ‘bhajan’ (devotional songs).
Much later, the Aryans accepted the Bhakti movement. They divided it into two schools: the ‘Shaivite’ (Shiva follower) – more popular in the South, worshipped by non-Brahmins, and ‘Vaishnavite’ (Vishnu follower) – more popular in the north, worshiped by Brahmins and non-Brahmins alike.
Chaitainya (1485-1533) revived the Bhakti movement known as Gaurya dharma in Bengal. Another Bengali, Prabhupada (1896-1977) revived ‘Hare Krishna Movement’ – also known as the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) in New York in 1965.
Damodar – a Manipuri (1937-2006) was a great proponent of the ISKCON movement as an International Director of the Bhaktivedanta Institute.
There is a third Bhakti movement that centres on ‘Shakti’ (Devi, Durga, Kali, Meenakshi, Parvati, in her different forms). The followers are called Shaktas. Most Bengalis follow this cult.
A closely related thread of the Shakti cult is the ‘Tantric’ movement that developed in the medieval period. The Tantra (Sanskrit for technique) is a series of practices on breathing, sexual union and other methods of realisation of God. The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the Puranas form the Hindu system of philosophy. Most Hindus regard the existence of Ram as historical. He is the philosophical Absolute for the philosophers while the materialistic Hindus simply appreciate the expressive poetry of the Ramayana.
Many Hindus believe that Mahabharata is also a historical chronicle. It contains 90,000 stanzas and is the longest single poem in the world.
What is Hinduism then? It has no definition. It is a way of life to reach the Godhead.
The basic tenets of Hinduism are:
1. Dharma – one’s duty
2. Karma – one’s actions
3. Moksha – liberation from the cycle of rebirth
The writer is based in the UK