Hinduism An Introduction


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  Hinduism An Introduction

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Introduction to Hinduism

Statistically, there are over 700 million Hindus, mainly in Bharat (India) and Nepal. Hinduism is referred to as Sanatana Dharma, the eternal faith. Hinduism is not strictly a religion. It is based on the practice of Dharma, the code of life. Since Hinduism has no founder, anyone who practices Dharma can call himself a Hindu. He can question the authority of any scripture, or even the existence of the Divine. The following article is based on my limited understanding.

While religion means to bind, Dharma means to hold. What man holds on to is his inner law, which leads from ignorance to Truth. Though reading of the scriptures (shastras) would not directly lead you to self-realization, the teachings of the seers provide a basis and a path for spirituality. Despite being the oldest religion, the truth realized by the seers prove that the Truth and path provided by Hinduism is beyond time.

Hindu Scriptures are broadly classified into Shruti (meaning 'heard'), Smriti (meaning 'remembered') and nyaya (meaning 'logic') based on its origin not on the mode of transmission. Therefore, shruti means something which were heard (directly from the Gods) by the sages while smriti refers to what was written down and remembered. shruti is considered more authoritative than smriti because the former is believed to have been obtained directly from God by the spiritual experiences of vedic seers and has no interpretations. Vedas constitute the shruti while the rest including Itihaasa-s (epics), PuraaNa-s (moral stories), and Agamas (emanated scriptures) are known as smriti while Vedanta-sutras (vedanta aphorisms) are classified as Nyaya. smriti and Nyaya always agrees with shruti.

The oldest and foremost among them are the Vedas. The vedas are called shruti and stems from the inner spiritual experience of the ancient seers. Hindus believe that Vedas are timeless and eternal. There are four vedas, namely Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva veda. Each veda consists of sections namely Samhita (containing the hymns) and Brahmana ( significance of the hymns), Aranyakas (interpretations), and Vedanta (upanishhads, which are metaphysical dialogs).

The vedangas and upavedas are texts which augment the Vedas. There are six vedangas namely Siksa, Jyotisha, Kalpa, Nirukti, Candas, and Vyakarana. Jyotisha (astrology) is the most famous among them. Kalpa explains the rituals and explain a path based on the other five. There are five upavedas namely Artha, Dhanur, Sthapatya, Gandharva, and Ayur-veda. Ayurveda which deals with health, medicine is probably the most popular of the upavedas.

Agamas are rules for the ritual, rites and the worship of Gods. There are five of them based for the worship of Ganesha, Shakti, Surya, Shiva, and Vishnu.

One can argue that the vedas show three clear paths. Karma-kanda is the path using the vedangas, Upasana-kanda is the path using Aagamas while Jnana-kanda involves the path of Upanishads to realize the Brahman.

Upanishads are called Vedanta, because they expound on the spiritual essence of Vedas and they are found at the end of the vedas. However, one should note that Upanishads are texts, while Vedanta is a philosophy. While there are numerous upanishhads (1180 to be exact), 108 of them are considered genuine.  Eleven of them namely Isha, kena, kaTha, prashna, muNDaka, mANDUkya, taittirIya, aitareya, chAndogya, shvetAshvatara, bR^ihad-AraNyaka, are considered the most significant or "major" upanishhads since they have been commented upon by the major acharyas (teachers) of various traditions. Upanishhads means 'to sit down near' because they were explained to the students sitting near the feet of their teacher.

Vedanta, the basis of Hinduism, asserts that Brahman, the 'impersonal' God and the universal soul, is the Absolute Truth. Brahman has multiple roles to play: the creator, the maintainer, and the destroyer all in one. (This can be viewed as the origin of the trinity Gods namely Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, respectively). Vedanta states that the individual human soul(jiva-atman) originates and merges with the Brahman. There are three different philosophies on this concept. Advaita (non-duality) implies that there is an identity of Brahman and Jivaatman while Dvaita (duality) differs from Advaita and maintains an ultimate diversity between Brahman and Jiva-atman. Visistadvaita (qualified non-duality) maintains a crucial differentiation as well as a fundamental identity. The advaita, Visihdavata and dvaita philosophies were expounded by Sri Adi  Shankara, Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhva, respectively. Other systems which aren't quite popular as the above ones are dvaitadvaita (dual-non-dual doctrine), suddhadvaita (pure non-dualism), and acinntyaa bhedabheda (oneness and difference) were expounded by Nimbarka, Vallabha and Vidyabhusana. All the above philosophers have written commentaries on the prasthana-traya (triple canon) of the vedanta, which are the upanishads, brahma sutra and bhagvad gita.

There are six systems of Indian philosophy (ShhaDarshana). They are Jaimini's Purva Mimansa, Patanjali's yoga, Gautama's Nyaya, Kanada's Vaisheshika, Vyasa's Uttar Mimansa, and Kapila's Sankhya. All the six systems are written in aphorisms (sutras). Though each sutra is just a few lines, huge commentaries have been written on each of them.

Besides all the philosophy which expound on the cosmic attributes of the Divine, there are epics (Itihaasa-s) and stories (Puranas) written which bring into light the human attributes of the Divine.

Itihaasa-s comprises of the two epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are the stories of two incarnations of Lord Vishnu, Rama and Krishna, respectively. These are by far the well read and most popular among the Hindus. Ramayana was first written by Valmiki while Mahabharata was written by Sage Vyasa. The Bhagvad-gita is the epitome of hindu philosophy and is found in the Mahabharata. Due to its content, Bhagvad-gita is sometimes considered to be a Gito-Upanishhad. Vyasa also wrote the eighteen puraaNa-s and eighteen sub-puranas. All puranas emphasize on morals and is usually a story about a hindu deity fighting for upholding these morals. There are also Kaavyas which are based on stories derived from the Itihaasa-s/puraaNas. Among them, Raghuvamsa, Meghaduta and Shakuntala are very famous.

There are also Prakarana Granthas which are considered to be primers or an introduction for spiritual studies. Among them are Atma Bodha, and my favorite, Bhaja Govindam [also known as Moha Mudhgara]. Besides the scriptures, there are stotra-s and bhajans (devotional songs and hymns) Among the numerous stotras, Sahasranamams (1008 names of each diety) are very famous.

As seen in the hinduism section, the trinity gods are Lord Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman), Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is not worshipped and there are very few temples in his honor due to 'mythological' reasons. Vishnu (and the incarnations of Him, Rama and Krishna), Shiva (and his various forms), their wives, are the most popular with numerous temples and followers. The wives of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are Saraswati, Laxmi, and Parvati, respectively. Collectively, they are sometimes referred to as Divine mother (or Shakti). Two of Parvati's fierce but very powerful forms are Durga and Kali..

One worships all the above dieties. This is referred to as Puja It is conducted to an idol made of gold, silver, bronze or even clay. Those who can not even afford these worship the Gods in paintings/pictures. Unfortunately, many people don't understand the significance of the puja, whether conducted daily at home or at a temple. It is true that stones are worshipped, and the elephant-God, Lord Ganesha, and the monkey-God, Hanuman are worshipped. But what is the significance ? Since God is omnipresent, then He should be present in stones, animals i.e everywhere. Isn't it beautiful that a person sees divinity in every aspect of creation whether it is animate or inanimate ? Worshippers would commit a grave error by seeing an essential distinction between the idol and the Supreme Lord, for they are one and the same.

Before the puja, one bathes to signify the outer purification. Mantras and stotras are recited for inner purification. Even a very simple puja employs flowers. What is the inner significance ? Flowers smell. This is called vaasaana. Vaasaana is also an another name for the imprints in the jiva, which constitute the flavor/smell of our personality, habits etc. Flowers are picked up with the right hand and then, the fingers are pointed downward so that the flowers fall at the feet of the idol. The five fingers signify the five senses. The senses which are normally directed outward for pleasure and now pointed downward showing that they are surrendered at His/Her Feet. Usually, the flower is placed after uttering 'namaH.' While namaH means salutation, it is also a corrupt form of 'na mama' i.e not mine. Thus, when offering flowers, one says, 'I am offering to you my senses, attributes, character but none of them are really mine. Everything is yours.' Thus, even a simple puja has a great spiritual meaning which escapes a casual observer.