Significant Features Of Hinduism
(as they have emerged through a historical process)
The significance of the history of the religion that gave no name to itself but which, in its later stages came to be called Hinduism, lies in the fact that it came to develop itself into a congregation of religions providing, at the same time, to each human being with his or her own method of inner experience. It began with the Vedas and developed various facets of spiritual experience, philosophical thought and systems responding to emotional and vital needs as also demands of the physical nature. It maintained a continuous thread uninterruptedly right up to the present day, and this religion succeeded in providing an example of a rich nursery of spiritual growth and flowering in a vast multiform school of the souls' disciplines of endeavour, and self-realisation.
Continuity and change have been a special feature of this religion which consciously opens up towards something that lies beyond religion and shows to the individuals and the collectivities how to liberate themselves from dogma, rituals, outward ceremonies so as to enter into the kingdom of the spirit and experience of the Infinite Reality in thousand different ways.
Like all great religions, Indian religion nourished in the mind a belief in a highest consciousness or state of existence, universal and transcendent of the universe, and it laid also upon the individual life the
need of self-preparation for development and experience. But the way in which this ancient religion developer provided a well-founded, well-explored, many-branching and always enlarging ways of knowledge and of spiritual or religious disciplines. However, the most distinctive element of Hinduism lies in the fact that through successive stages, it built up for larger and larger gradations of human consciousness an organisation of the individual and collective life, — a framework of personal and social discipline and conduct, of mental and moral and vital development by which they could move each in one's own limits and according to one's own nature in such a way as to become eventually ready for the greater existence.
To understand Hinduism, one needs to understand the long and difficult course of its history and derive from it lessons of its significance. Why is it difficult to make out what Hinduism is? Where, it is asked, is its soul? Where is its mind and fixed thought? Where is the form of its body? How can there be a religion which has no rigid dogmas, no theological postulates, even no fixed theology, no credo, distinguishing it from antagonistic or rival religions? Again, it is asked, how can there be a religion which has no papal head, no governing ecclesiastic, no church, chapel or congregational system, no binding religious forms of any kind obligatory on all its adherents, no one administration and discipline? Still again, it is asked, how can Hinduism be called a religion when it allows even a kind of high-reaching atheism and agnosticism and permits all possible spiritual experiences, all kinds of religious adventures?
The answer to these questions lies in the fact that through its long history, Hinduism has provided, not only to the best minds or to elite, but to the larger and
larger masses of people such a subtle philosophical training and a a wide spiritual culture that to the Hindu mind the least important part of its religion is its dogma; what matters to it is the religious spirit, not theological credo.
Let us, however, come to precisions.
The Hindu religious thinker has succeeded in spreading widely the idea that all the highest eternal verities are truths of the spirit, and that the supreme truths are fruits of the soul's inner experience rather than of logical reasoning or affirmations of credal statements.
A permanent flow of thought in India has constantly given a message that there are no true and false religions, but rather all religions are true in their own way and degree. Each religion is recognised as one of the thousand paths to the One Eternal, which can be formulated differently by different minds.
If we study the history of Hinduism, it will become clear that what has been emphasised most is the pursuit of the One eternal under whatever conception or whatever form, to attain to it by inner experience, to live in it in consciousness. One school or sect might consider the real self of man to be indivisible one with the universal Self or the Supreme Spirit. Another might regard man as one with divine in essence but different from him in Nature. The third might hold God, Nature and the individual Soul in man to be three eternally different powers of being. But for all of them the truth of Self is held with equal force; for even to the Indian dualists, God is the supreme Self and Reality in whom and by whom nature and man live, move and have their being. The Spirit, universal Nature, (whether called Maya, Prakriti or Shakti) and the soul in living beings,
Jiva, are the three truths which are universally admitted by all the religious sects and conflicting religious philosophies of Hinduism; they differ only in respect of relations between these three. Universal also is the admission that the discovery of the inner spiritual self in man, the divine soul in him, and some kind of living and uniting contact or absolute unity of the soul in man with God or supreme Self or eternal Brahman is the condition of spiritual perfection. It is open to the adherents to conceive and have experiences of the divine as an impersonal Absolute and Infinite or to approach and know and feel him as a transcendent and universal sempiternal Person; but whatever be our way of reaching Him, the one important truth of spiritual experience is that He is in the heart and centre of all existence and all existence is in Him and to find Him is the great self-finding. Differences of credal belief are to the Hindu mind nothing more than various ways of seeing the one Self and God in all.
In Hinduism, realisation is the one common endeavour; to open to the inner spirit, to live in the Infinite, to seek after and discover the eternal, to be in union with God, that is the common idea and aim of religion, that is the sense of spiritual salvation, that is the living truth that fulfils and releases. This dynamic following after the highest spiritual truth and the highest spiritual aim is the uniting bond of Hinduism, and, behind all its thousand arms, it is one common essence.
It must be emphasised that the history of Hindu spirituality and religion shows a remarkable spirit of experimentation and research, of an increasing subtlety, plasticity, sounding of depths, expansion of seeking. There have been systems of specialisation and also conflicting claims and counterclaims, but the supervening tendency has been to combine, assimilate,
harmonise and synthesise. Four great systems of synthesis in the history of Hinduism are clearly discernible, and they are represented by the Vedas, Upanishads, Gita, and the Tantra. In modern times, Hinduism is passing through the fifth stage of synthesis, represented by a new synthesis which is in the making.
It is remarkable to notice how through various stages of historical development, Hinduism provided a subtle combination of firmness and spiritual order, on the one hand, and untrammelled spiritual freedom, on the other.
In the first place, there developed the recognition of ever-enlarging principles and authorised scriptures. Some of these scriptures like the Gita possessed a common and widespread authority, and others were peculiar to sects or schools; some like the Vedas were supposed to have an absolute, others a relative binding force. A great care, however, was taken to ensure freedom of interpretation, and this prevented any of those authoritative scriptures from being turned into an instrument of ecclesiastic tyranny, denial of human mind and spirit. Another instrument of order was the power of family and communal tradition, kuladharma, persistent but not immutable. The third instrument was the religious authority of Brahmins, who stood as priests and scholars, as custodians of observance, but much more as custodians of religious tradition. And fourthly, firmness and spiritual order were secured by the succession of Gurus or spiritual teachers. In due course of history, there developed institutions of sanghas, of a sort of divided pontifical authority by Shankaracharya, of the Sikh Khalsa, and the adoption of the congregational form of samaj by the modem reforming sects. But it is noteworthy that even in these attempts, the freedom and plasticity and living sincerity of the religious mind of India always prevented it from
initiating, anything like the over-blown ecclesiastical order of despotic hierarchies.
The consequent result is that it is impossible to describe the Hindu spirituality and religion by any exclusive label. Even in its various forms, it cannot be described as monotheism or pantheism or deism or transcendentalism, although each of these is present in it in some tacit or pronounced way. Even the spiritual truths behind the primitive forms such as those of animism, fetishism, totemism have been allowed to play a role in its complex totality, although their external forms have been discouraged and are not applicable to those who lead an inner mental and spiritual life. It is this complexity that bewilders the foreign student when he tries to define Hinduism in terms and under criteria that are not born of the great Indian historical movements. But things become easier once it is grasped that the fundamental point of reference is not the outward form of any belief but the spirit behind and the justifying spiritual experience.
Hinduism is the worship of one Godhead as the All, for all in the universe is That; godheads are made out of that being. The Indian religion is not therefore pantheism, for beyond universality, it recognises supra-cosmic Eternal. Hindu polytheism is not popular paganism. In Hinduism, the worshipper of many gods still knows that all his divinities, forms, names, personalities are the powers of the One; his gods are energies of the one divine Force. Even the Indian image worship is not the idolatry of a barbaric or undeveloped mind, for even the most ignorant know that the image is the symbol and support and can be dispensed with it when its use is over.
All forms of religions in Hinduism turn irresistibly towards the fathomless truths of Vedanta. Hinduism is only distinguished from other creeds by its traditional
scriptures, cults and symbols; yet the significance of Hinduism lies in the way in which it has shaped itself to retain its essential character of a vast, many-sided, progressive and Self-enlarging system of spiritual culture, at the summits of which are systems of Yoga and Syntheses of Yoga, of exploration, verification and acquisition of new knowledge.
Hinduism avoided the error of imposing a single dogmatic and inflexible rule on every man or woman regardless of the potentialities of his or her nature. It recognised the need to draw him gently upward and help him to grow steadily in religious and spiritual experience. Towards this end, every human nature, every characteristic turn of its action was given a place in the system; each was suitably surrounded with the spiritual idea and a religious influence, each provided with steps by which it might rise towards its own spiritual possibility and significance. The highest spiritual meaning was set on the summits of each evolving power of the human nature. It has, therefore, been said meaningfully that for a Hindu the whole of life is religion. No step can be taken in the inner or outer life without being reminded of the underlying truth of spiritual significance.
The enabling factor, which made this pervasive influence of religion and spirituality on every Hindu discipline, is idea of adhikara. Hinduism set up on its summit an extremely high-pitched spiritual call, a standard of conduct which can be considered to be absolute. But it did not go about its work with a summary rigidity. It recognised that in life there are infinite differences between one human being and another. Some .are more inwardly evolved, others are less mature, many if not most are infant souls incapable of great steps and difficult efforts. Each one needs to be dealt with according to his or her
nature, and the station of his or her soul as also in keeping with the requisite need of each one to rise to the next higher stage. According to the adhikara or qualification that one possesses, a corresponding effort was laid down and demanded.
In practical effect, a gradation of three stages in the growing human consciousness came to be recognised and provided for:
(i) the first stage or level was that of the crude, ill-formed,, still outward, still vital and physically minded;
(ii) the second was more developed and capable of a much stronger and deeper psycho-spiritual experience; and
(iii) the third was that of the ripest and most developed of all, ready for the spiritual heights, fit to receive or to climb towards the loftiest ultimate truth of spiritual reality.
It was to meet the need of the first stage or level that Hinduism created that mass of suggestive ceremonies and effective rituals and strict outward rule and injunction and pageant of attracting and compelling symbol. In the Vedic times, the outward ritual sacrifice and at a later period all the religious forms and ceremonies of temple worship, and constant festival were intended to serve this first stage. Many of these things may seem to the developed mind to belong to an ignorant or half awakened religionism, but they have their underlying truth and their psychic value and are indispensable in this stage for the development and difficult awakening of the soul that is shrouded in the ignorance of material Nature.
The bulk of people who belong to the second stage may start from these things and can get behind them. They are capable of understanding more clearly and consciously the truth of the conceptions of the intelligence, the aesthetic indications, the ethical values and all the other mediating directions which Hinduism took care to place behind its symbols. These intermediate truths vivify the outward forms of the system and those who can grasp them can go through these mental indices towards things that are beyond the mind and approach the profoundest truths of the spirit.
Religion and spirituality for people belonging to this second stage provided opulent material in the form of philosophic, psycho-spiritual, ethical, aesthetic and emotional forms of seeking. At this stage, there intervene the philosophical systems, the subtle illuminating debates and inquiries of the thinkers, the more passionate reaches of devotion, and austerer ideals of dharma.
The third stage, the loftiest stage of spiritual evolution, goes beyond all symbols and middle significances in order to arrive at the absolute and universal divine love, the beauty of All-beautiful, noblest dharma of unity with all beings, universal compassion and benevolence, the upsurge of the psychical being into the spiritual ecstasy. It is here that Hinduism provided various systems of Yoga so as to arrive at an identity with the self and spirit, or at a dwelling in or with God, at the practice of the divine law and at the highest spiritual universality in communication with transcendence.
The frame of Hinduism which provided to each individual the needed guidance, the required "aspiration, and the needed law of development was Instituted by a triple quartet.
Its first circle was that of four purusharthas, the synthesis and gradation of the fourfold objects of life, vital desire, and hedonistic enjoyment (kama), personal and communal interest (artha), moral right and law (dharma) and spiritual liberation (moksha).
Its second circle was the fourfold order of society, carefully graded and equipped with its fixed economic functions and its deeper cultural, ethical and spiritual significances. This order which came to be called varna vyavastha provided to the Brahmin the function and dharma of the pursuit of knowledge, to kshatariya the function and dharma of the pursuit of courage and heroism, to the vaishya the function and dharma of interchange, mutuality and economic sustenance of the society, and to the shudra the function and dharma of the pursuit of skill, labour and service.
The third circle of Hinduism was that of the fourfold scheme of the successive stages of life, those of the student, the householder, the forest recluse, and the free supra-social man. This frame which has been called ashrama vyavastha provided to the student, the function and dharma of study, discipline and restraint [brahmacharya); to the householder (grihastha) the function and dharma of marriage and multiple responsibilities of family and social relationships; to the forest recluse (vanaprastha) function and dharma of retirement from ordinary occupations so as to be engaged in reflection, contemplation and imparting of education to oneself and to others. For the free supra- social man, (sanyasin), the function and dharma was so large and free that one could arrive ultimately at the highest and perfect stage of consciousness and action.
It is true that this framework of Hinduism subsisted in its fine effectiveness during the later Vedic and heroic age of civilisation, and afterwards it crumbled slowly or
lost its completeness and order. But the tradition had some large effect throughout the whole period of cultural vigour. And later on, when the framework declined, something of the ancient and noble Aryan system still persisted. Even today when there is a need to build a new framework, the original conceptions that lay behind the ancient frame promise to play a major role and will probably impel new forms that will express the ancient spiritual aims as also those modern ideals which are striving to be actualised in the life of collectivities.
In is necessary to emphasise that the goal sought after by Hinduism encouraged and inspired multisided development of all aspects of human nature and all parts of the being. In order to reach this goal, Hinduism has permitted bold and adventurous experiments, and it has shown that the Infinite can only be reached in fullness if we have grown integrally. That is the reason why Hinduism underlined the value of life and insisted on its multisided training. Even the most extreme philosophies and religions which hold life to be ultimately meaningless, did not lose sight of the truth of the need of high level of intellectual or emotional or dynamic development before one can arrive at the Permanent and Absolute which is perceived as the denial of the temporal being. Lessons learnt from these extreme positions have been given their proper place and value.
It must be stated that the early Vedic religion did not "deny life. Upanishads, too, did not deny life, but held that the world is a manifestation of the Eternal, of "Brahman. They declared that all here is Brahman, all is in the Spirit and the Spirit is in all, that the self-existent Pint has become all these things and creatures; life too is Brahman, the life-spirit, vayu, is the manifest and evidently pratyaksha Brahman. But they affirmed that Present way of existence of man is not the highest or
the whole. They underlined that the human being can be fulfilled and perfected when it grows out of the physical and mental ignorance into spiritual self- knowledge. Negative and pessimistic ideas in regard to life have been constantly combated by the Hindu mind. And at the present time, the most vital movements of Hindu thought and religion are moving again towards the synthesis of spirituality and life, which was an essential part of the ancient Indian ideal.
It is the life-affirming motivation that lies at the root of the best of what India attempted and achieved in various domains of life, — spiritual, religious, philosophical, ethical, aesthetic, scientific, technological, literary, economic, social, and political. Again, the Hindu emphasis on life developed the insistence whereby culture came to be shared by the whole nation in the common life. The entire aim of Hinduism was that the God-knowledge, soul-knowledge and world-knowledge should be spread increasingly among larger and larger sections of people and at each succeeding stage of history of Hinduism, we can notice how larger and larger sections of people came to be embraced in its ever- growing sweep.
In sum, it can be said that the whole sense of the striving of Hinduism has been to secure the development of spirituality in humanity in all its parts, to help the human being to become not only conscious of the eternal and infinite, but also to live in its power universalised, spiritualised and divinised. The aim has been not merely to bring individuals to states of integral perfection but also to help the entire humanity to find its fulfilment in the realisation of collective harmony and perfection.