Here is an outline of the salient concepts of Hinduism.
The word “Hindu” comes from the name that the people living to the West of the river Indus called the inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. The name that the Hindus call the religion is “Sanaatana Dharma” (eternal religion) or “Vaidika Dharma” (Vedic religion).
Spiritual Truths and Social Rules
Hinduism has its roots in the Vedas, the oldest books known to mankind. The Vedas are records of the spiritual laws of nature and so the people who wrote them are considered discoverers and not authors. So the Vedas are considered to be eternal, because the laws are eternal. The Vedas are also called Srutis. They are eternally applicable to all people of all places and times. There is an enormous amount of religious, spiritual and social literature that have been created over a few thousands of years after the Vedas. These are called Smritis. They are applicable to people of a particular place during a particular era. They should change from society to society and from time to time. But the Smritis should not contradict the Vedas. The eternal laws of the spiritual nature are in the Vedas. The time depedant social conventions based on those eternal laws are written in the Smritis. These two are very clearly demarcated in Hinduism.
Hinduism is based on the discoveries of the sages. The discoveries are formulated into a logical philosophical framework. Practices are designed to enable people to understand and implement the spiritual truths in the everyday life. Here is an outline of Hinduism from the point of view of the Vedas.
The Goal – Happiness
All creatures seek unconditional happiness. Unconditional happiness has to be independent of any external object, people and situation. It should be eternal. Anything that has an arrival has to have a departure. So unconditional happiness has to be in the past, present and future. If it is there in the present, the only reason that a person feels sorrow is the absence of access to the happiness which is always there. This can be found to be true because under any circumstance, a person can be happy if he decides to be so. So, sorrow is only because of the inability to make that decision in the given situation. Intrinsically, everyone is happy.
The Way – Knowledge
The only way to be unconditionally happy is to know, to be convinced and to be established in this knowledge of intrinsic happiness. This can happen by a true knowledge of the nature of the Self, which is the answer to the question “Who am I?” This is the final step of the religion, called Jnaana Yoga. The rest of the religion, broadly called Karma Yoga, is to remove the blocks that prevent our access to this knowledge and intrinsic happiness. The block is our attachment to our individuality and the world as we experience it everyday. Getting over this attachment is called renunciation (vairaagya). The renunciation is internal. It need not be external. The goal of Karma Yoga is to develop this mental renunciation. Thus, Karma Yoga is a preparation for Jnaana Yoga.
The Preparation – Action
We have to start from where we are. So, first, Hinduism gives a model of the world that we experience. This consists of the triad – individual (jeeva), world (jagat) and God (ishwara).
We face various situations in life. In a given situation, we are urged by our inner tendencies to act in a particular way. Using our freewill, we decide how to act. We see the result of the action. Only a part of the action contributes to the immediate visible result. A part of the action is stored up and it will influence the future situations and the future results. Thus, the result of a current action depends on the stored up effects of past actions also. Every action produces three effects – immediate visible result (phala), invisible result stored up for future (karma) and inner tendency (samskaara). In any given situation, we have the freewill to decide what we do. We alone are responsible for our decision. The situation, our tendency and the results are all the effects of our own present and past actions. This is called the Doctrine of Karma. This is an infallible Law. Ishwara is the one who oversees the operation of this Law. Jeeva is the one who goes through this. Jagat is the field where all this happens. This karma and samskaara are carried across births. Death is only to the body. The jeeva with his bundle of karma and samskaara goes from one birth to another doing action and reaping the effects.
You cannot talk about how this all started being in the system. Also, this is only a model to explain the current experience. If you want to know about how it all started, you have to first get out of the system and at that time, the model changes and a different model is proposed, which we shall see later. For now, this is a working model to answer all our everyday experiences.
By experimenting with this cycle of action and results, observing carefully and analyzing the observations, we will naturally find the limitations and the lack of a higher purpose of the whole exercise. We will naturally ask “Why all this? What next?” That is the renunciation that is needed to move to the next part of religion, Jnaana Yoga. But to reach that renunciation, we should exhaust all expectations here. The only way to do that is to play a fair game here. This is broadly called Karma Yoga.
The Paths – The Yogas
There are different angles of looking at Karma Yoga. These give different paths. A person can take one or more of these in any proportion. They can be broadly classified as Samaadhi Yoga (predominantly based on mental transactions), Bhakti Yoga (predominantly based on emotional transactions), Karma Yoga (predominantly based on physical transactions) and Jnaana Yoga (predominantly based on intellectual transactions).
Samaadhi Yoga or Ashthaanga Yoga presented here is based on the Patanjali Yoga Sutras.
Initially a person may want to do these for developing more concentration, relieve from stress, get occult powers, etc. As the person matures, he will do these to develop detachment and peace of mind.
Don’ts (yamaa) and Do’s (niyamaa):
Truthfulness (satya) – perfect match between knowledge, intention, word and deed
Non-violence (ahimsa) – not harming any creature by thought, word and deed
Non-stealing (aasteya) – absence of unfair acquisition or possession
Non-possession (aparigraha) – absence of possession or consumption beyond what is reasonably required
Continence (brahmacharya) – decent and appropriate attitude towards the other gender
Cleanliness (saucha) – physical hygiene, mental purity and orderliness in life
Contentment (santosha) – general cheerfulness and contentment in life
Austerity (tapas) – stretching limits to identify and push the limits
Study (swaadhyaaya) – study of religion and philosophy
Surrender to God (ishwara pranidhaana) – understanding and acceptance of the Doctrine of Karma
Posture (aasana) and Breath control (praanaayaama):
To control the mind, a steady posture and smooth breathing is essential. Breathing and mind are closely related. By making the breathing uniform, the mind can be made calm.
Withdrawal of senses (pratyaahaara):
The mind should be withdrawn from the sights, sounds, smells, etc from outside to be able to concentrate.
Concentration (dhaarana), retention (dhyaana) and absorption (samaadhi):
The mind should be focused on the subject at hand. Whenever it strays away, it should be brought back. All other roles and responsibilities should be temporarily dropped. The mind should be retained in ideas related to the subject. Finally, the mind will effortlessly be absorbed in the subject without any distractions.
Hinduism has developed a number of meditation techniques, imageries, etc to help the person to concentrate on a given subject detaching himself from the material objects of the world.
A personal relationship should be established with God. As one progresses, this will expand to cover everything. The personal relationship can be based on different attitudes (bhaava) like a servant of God (daasya), a child of God (vaatsalya), etc.
Initially a person may pray God for success in the material world (aarthi, arthaarthi). As the person matures, God will become the goal (jignaasu). The person will develop detachment from the world and love God unconditionally. To start with a person may for a personal relationship with a particular form of God (eka rupa bhakti). When the love becomes unconditional, the love will naturally transcend the form and become universal (viswa rupa bhakti).
There are different means to develop and express love for God like singing his names (kirtana), chanting his names (japa), thinking of his deeds (lilaa smarana), thinking of his form (rupa smarana), thinking of his qualities (guna smarana), visiting places of pilgrimage (tirtha yaatra), serving his devotees (bhakta seva), serving the all the creatures of the world as his parts (paada seva), etc.
Hinduism has developed a number of forms of God and a rich mythology about each form to help people to involve in all these. The aim is to develop mental renunciation from the world and develop an universal outlook of love and service.
Right action with the right attitude is Karma Yoga.
Actions can be selfless (satva), selfish (rajas) or harmful (tamas). We have to totally avoid actions that will harm others and ourselves. We have to reduce selfish actions to minimum. We have to increase selfless actions to maximum.
We are indebted to others in different ways. We should pay back the debts (runa). Paying back the debts is called yagna. These are classified into five categories.
1. Debt to nature (deva runa): We are indebted to air, water, fire, sun, etc. We should conserve them and not pollute them. We should work for their regeneration and sustainance.
2. Debt to plants and animals (bhoota runa): We are indebted to plants and animals for all the things that they provide like food, clothes, materials, labor, etc. They should be treated with kindness. They should be developed.
3. Debt to human beings (manushya runa): We are indebted to various people who help us like farmers, tailors, masons, drivers, etc. We should treat everyone with kindness. We should serve the underprivileged by donations, service, etc.
4. Debt to ancestors (pitru runa): We are indebted to our parents, grandparents, etc for the biological inheritance. We should take care of our parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, etc. We should help destitute people, orphans, etc.
5. Debt to teachers (rishi runa): We are indebted to teachers, scientists, artists, etc for the scientific, technological and cultural inheritance. We should respect and support our teachers and other people and institutions of knowledge and culture. We should learn, develop and spread knowledge and culture.
We should give donation with humility to people who cannot pay us back at the right place and time when it is most useful to them without seeking any returns or fame. This is called charity (daana). (Bhagavad Gita – 17:20)
We should lead a disciplined life. This is called austerity (tapas). Austerity is of the body, speech and mind. Showing respect to God, elders, cultured people and wise people, cleanliness, orderliness, celibacy, non-violence are bodily austerity. Talking softly, speaking only that is truthful, pleasant and useful, studying and discussing religion and philosophy are verbal austerity. Gratitude, cheerfulness, calmness, control of mind and purity of intention are mental austerity. (Bhagavad Gita – 17:14,15,16)
As it is God who has put us in the situation that we are in, doing what is required in the current circumstance is our prime duty (swadharma). It is wrong to evade or refuse to do what is required and appropriate in any situation in life. Doing our own duty is a worship of God. (Bhagavad Gita – 18:46)
The objective of action is to develop detachment eventually. The goal should never be forgotten. The principles of the doctrine of Karma should be well understood. The person should be convinced of the doctrine. Whatever is done should be done as an offering to God (ishwara arpana buddhi). There should not be any shortcomings in whatever is done. Everything should be done with full enthusiasm and perfection. After the action, there should not be any anxiety about the results. The person should be believe in the fairness of God. Whatever results that come should be accepted as a gift from God (prasaada buddhi). There should not be any complaint or grudge about the results. The person should understand and accept that God is fair and this is what he deserves for the action that he has done now and in the past. But more action in the right direction, better results can be got if so desired.
Long term inner development should be given more importance than short term external results.
Hinduism thus provides a lot of scope for good action. It also encourages everyone to do their duties without longing for the results. This way the person will naturally develop inner detachment from the world.
Jnaana Yoga is the path of intellectual discrimination. Four qualifications (saadhana chatustaya) should be developed by the person on this path.
Discimination (viveka) – Discrimination between what is permanent and what is transient
Dispassion (vairaagya) – Detachment from the results of action
Discipline (sat sampatti) – There are six disciplines: control of the senses (sama), control of the mind (dama), forbearance (titiksha), doing one’s duty (uparati), faith in the words of the Guru and scriptures (shradda), contentment (samaadhaana).
Desire (mumukshutva) – Strong desire to know the truth about existence
By going through this path and developing these qualities, the person will develop detachment from the world.
Hinduism provides a huge amount of theory and philosophy that a person can spend indulge in on this path.
After the preparation following one or more or all of the above said paths in any proportion depending on the individual temperament, the person would have developed inner renunciation. The disciple (shishya) approaches a teacher (guru) who is well versed in the knowledge (srotriyam) and is established in the knowledge (brahma nishtham). He has to approach the teacher with humility and be ready to serve him. He should be ready to keep aside all his prejudices and listen to the teacher with full receptivity. From this point, the goal is reached by a three step process.
Hearing (sravana): The disciple hears about the Self from the teacher. The teacher explains the content of the scriptures to the disciple in a systematic and comprehensive manner.
Thinking (manana): After the teacher has given the complete teaching, the disciple thinks about the whole teaching and asks questions where he has not understood and where he sees a gap. By the end of this process, the disciple has the right, complete and doubtless knowledge about the Self.
Establishing (nididhyaasana): After having the knowledge, the disciple has to work towards aligning the old habits to the newly gained knowledge and outlook.
The person, who has the full knowledge and has his habits also tuned to reflect the knowledge in his everyday life, is called a person who is free while living (jivan mukta). This is the goal of life. Such a person is totally free from all sorrow, anxiety, selfishness, etc. He is the ideal human being. This freedom (moksha) is the goal. Knowledge is the means to this freedom. Action is the preparation for knowledge.
The goal of Hinduism is to raise the adherent, from whatever stage he is in, into this ideal human being.