What is Hinduism? From the essays of Vivekananda.
Hinduism is a religion whose foundation is Vedas. It is also termed as the religion of Vedas or Vedanta Philosophy. It is believed that Vedas have no beginning or no end. They are timeless, they were not written but they always existed. But this needs to be understood properly. For example, the law of Gravitation as discovered by Newton. But that does not mean that this law did not exist before. It is just that Newton was the first who realized it.
Similar is the case with the Vedas. Vedas are the truths discovered by the ancient rishis in India after doing meditation for days and months and years. It was not possible to discover Vedas as easily as Newton discovered Gravitation law. The Rishis had to transcend all limits of their bodies and minds and only then they could find the truths of life. The Vedanta philosophy believes in the concept of multiple births. Vedanta holds the theory that apart from our body and mind there is also a powerful soul behind it. That soul is just a fraction of the infinite soul, God, who is the creator of the universe.
So according to Vedanta, if a person dies, it is just his mortal body that perishes but it is a mere change of garments for the soul. And a soul with a certain tendency would by the laws of affinity take birth in a body which is the fittest instrument for the display of that tendency. The religion of Vedantas propagates the theory of karmas. It explains that a lot of the circumstances of our current life are determined by past actions. It is much like the theory of cause and effect. Our current action is the effect of the past cause. And our current actions will prove to be the cause of future effects.
This is precisely what Lord Krishna explained Arjuna on the battlefield. Arjuna was frightened at the sight of fighting with his own friends and relatives. He felt that of what use will victory be if it is achieved by killing his own brethren. But Krishna explained to him that there was no such time when the soul was not born, it was there before we are born and it will stay also after we die. The soul merely changes garments which are the bodies, when these bodies perish.
So then the Hindu believes that he is a spirit. Him the sword cannot pierce — him the fire cannot burn — him the water cannot melt — him the air cannot dry. The Hindu believes that every soul is a circle whose circumference is nowhere, but whose center is located in the body and that death means the change of this center from the body to body. Nor is the soul bound by the conditions of matter. In its very essence, it is free, unbounded, holy, pure, and perfect. But somehow or other it finds itself tied down to matter, and thinks of itself as matter.
Now here is an interesting fact which Vivekananda modestly explains. If the soul is perfect, how can it be deluded that it is matter? How can the soul which is perfect, unchangeable think that it is matter? Although there is no concrete answer found by the Hindu, but a fact is a fact and there is no escaping from that fact. The Hindu has given sufficient proof that we are not just a combination of mind and matter but we possess a soul which is eternal and immortal, perfect and infinite, and death means only a change of centre from one body to another.
So what is the proof that we have multiple births and there is the all-powerful soul in us? Is it possible to remember our past birth? It is definitely possible and it has been demonstrated by a lot of enlightened people in the past. But it requires dedication, commitment, and willingness to do that. Just like the Rishis of the past discovered Vedas, we can also remember our past lives provided we are ready to follow the principles of the Yogas. Be it the Jyana Yoga – Knowledge, Bhakti Yoga – Devotion, Raja Yoga – Meditation, or Karma Yoga – Selfless actions. Any of the practices if followed diligently over a period of time will definitely show us the way.
But is our present life determined only by our past actions and is life only a phenomenon of cause and effect? So will this cycle will go on and on and when will this cycle end? If that were the case, then men would get trapped in the middle of endless cycles of birth and death and it will never end at any point? So what is the solution? Is there no hope for man?
Here the explanation of Vivekananda brings hope and solace to our hearts. He says, ” Is there no hope? Is there no escape? — was the cry that went up from the bottom of the heart of despair. It reached the throne of mercy, and words of hope and consolation came down and inspired a Vedic sage, and he stood up before the world and in trumpet voice proclaimed the glad tidings: “Hear, ye children of immortal bliss! even ye that reside in higher spheres! I have found the Ancient One who is beyond all darkness, all delusion: knowing Him alone you shall be saved from death over again.” “Children of immortal bliss” — what a sweet, what a hopeful name! Allow me to call you, brethren, by that sweet name — heirs of immortal bliss — yea, the Hindu refuses to call you sinners. Ye are the Children of God, the sharers of immortal bliss, holy and perfect beings. Ye divinities on earth — sinners! It is a sin to call a man so; it is a standing libel on human nature. Come up, O lions, and shake off the delusion that you are sheep; you are souls immortal, spirits free, blest and eternal; ye do not matter, ye are not bodies; matter is your servant, not you the servant of matter.”
He is everywhere, the pure and formless One, the Almighty and the All-merciful. “Thou art our father, Thou art our mother, Thou art our beloved friend, Thou art the source of all strength; give us strength. Thou art He that beareth the burdens of the universe; help me bear the little burden of this life.” Thus sang the Rishis of the Vedas. And how to worship Him? Through love. “He is to be worshipped as the one beloved, dearer than everything in this and the next life.”
This is the doctrine of love declared in the Vedas, and let us see how it is fully developed and taught by Krishna, whom the Hindus believe to have been God incarnate on earth.
He taught that a man ought to live in this world like a lotus leaf, which grows in water but is never moistened by water; so a man ought to live in the world — his heart to God and his hands to work.It is good to love God for hope of reward in this or the next world, but it is better to love God for love’s sake, and the prayer goes: “Lord, I do not want wealth, nor children, nor learning. If it be Thy will, I shall go from birth to birth, but grant me this, that I may love Thee without the hope of reward — love unselfishly for love’s sake.”
The Vedas teach that the soul is divine, only held in the bondage of matter; perfection will be reached when this bond will burst, and the word they use for it is therefore, Mukti — freedom, freedom from the bonds of imperfection, freedom from death and misery. And this bondage can only fall off through the mercy of God, and this mercy comes on the pure. So purity is the condition of His mercy. How does that mercy act? He reveals Himself to the pure heart; the pure and the stainless see God, yea, even in this life; then and then only all the crookedness of the heart is made straight. Then all doubt ceases. He is no more the freak of a terrible law of causation. This is the very centre, the very vital conception of Hinduism. The Hindu does not want to live upon words and theories. If there are existences beyond the ordinary sensuous existence, he wants to come face to face with them. If there is a soul in him which is not matter, if there is an all-merciful universal Soul, he will go to Him direct. He must see Him, and that alone can destroy all doubts. So the best proof a Hindu sage gives about the soul, about God, is: “I have seen the soul; I have seen God.” And that is the only condition of perfection. The Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realising — not in believing, but in being and becoming.
Thus the whole object of their system is by constant struggle to become perfect, to become divine, to reach God and see God, and this reaching God, seeing God, becoming perfect even as the Father in Heaven is perfect, constitutes the religion of the Hindus.
And what becomes of a man when he attains perfection? He lives a life of bliss infinite. He enjoys infinite and perfect bliss, having obtained the only thing in which man ought to have pleasure, namely God, and enjoys the bliss with God.
VIVEKANANDA ON IDOL – WORSHIP
I remember, as a boy, hearing a Christian missionary preach to a crowd in India. Among other sweet things he was telling them was that if he gave a blow to their idol with his stick, what could it do? One of his hearers sharply answered, “If I abuse your God, what can He do?” “You would be punished,” said the preacher, “when you die.” “So my idol will punish you when you die,” retorted the Hindu.
Superstition is a great enemy of man, but bigotry is worse. Why does a Christian go to church? Why is the cross holy? Why is the face turned toward the sky in prayer? Why are there so many images in the Catholic Church? Why are there so many images in the minds of Protestants when they pray? My brethren, we can no more think about anything without a mental image than we can live without breathing. By the law of association, the material image calls up the mental idea and vice versa. This is why the Hindu uses an external symbol when he worships. He will tell you, it helps to keep his mind fixed on the Being to whom he prays. He knows as well as you do that the image is not God, is not omnipresent. After all, how much does omnipresence mean to almost the whole world? It stands merely as a word, a symbol. Has God superficial area? If not, when we repeat that word “omnipresent”, we think of the extended sky or of space, that is all.
As we find that somehow or other, by the laws of our mental constitution, we have to associate our ideas of infinity with the image of the blue sky, or of the sea, so we naturally connect our idea of holiness with the image of a church, a mosque, or a cross. The Hindus have associated the idea of holiness, purity, truth, omnipresence, and such other ideas with different images and forms. But with this difference that while some people devote their whole lives to their idol of a church and never rise higher, because with them religion means an intellectual assent to certain doctrines and doing good to their fellows, the whole religion of the Hindu is centred in realisation. Man is to become divine by realising the divine. Idols or temples or churches or books are only the supports, the helps, of his spiritual childhood: but on and on he must progress.
He must not stop anywhere. “External worship, material worship,” say the scriptures, “is the lowest stage; struggling to rise high, mental prayer is the next stage, but the highest stage is when the Lord has been realised.” Mark, the same earnest man who is kneeling before the idol tells you, “Him the Sun cannot express, nor the moon, nor the stars, the lightning cannot express Him, nor what we speak of as fire; through Him they shine.” But he does not abuse any one’s idol or call its worship sin. He recognises in it a necessary stage of life. “The child is father of the man.” Would it be right for an old man to say that childhood is a sin or youth a sin?
If a man can realise his divine nature with the help of an image, would it be right to call that a sin? Nor even when he has passed that stage, should he call it an error. To the Hindu, man is not travelling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth. To him all the religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realise the Infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of these marks a stage of progress; and every soul is a young eagle soaring higher and higher, gathering more and more strength, till it reaches the Glorious Sun.
It is the same light coming through glasses of different colours. And these little variations are necessary for purposes of adaptation. But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns. The Lord has declared to the Hindu in His incarnation as Krishna, “I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls. Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power raising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there.” And what has been the result? I challenge the world to find, throughout the whole system of Sanskrit philosophy, any such expression as that the Hindu alone will be saved and not others. Says Vyasa, “We find perfect men even beyond the pale of our caste and creed.” One thing more. How, then, can the Hindu, whose whole fabric of thought centres in God, believe in Buddhism which is agnostic, or in Jainism which is atheistic?