The Eternal and Temporal Aspects of Hinduism

Hinduism Essay Subject Image

by Jayaram V

Many followers of Hinduism believe that Hinduism is an eternal religion (Sanatana Dharma). Now for many writers, scholars and historians of Hinduism, who prefer to follow the historical timeline to discuss the origin and growth of Hinduism, this poses many problems.

For example when someone writes that Hinduism evolved over a period of time through a complex historical process, those who faithfully adhere to the Puranic timeline and view every modern interpretation with doubt and derision raise their eye brows and accuse one of diluting the meaning and value of Hinduism. They wonder how a religion can be eternal and evolve at the same time. According to them either the religion is eternal and permanent or it is evolutionary and ephemeral. Both cannot possibly be in the same space, they argue.

It is true that Hinduism is a very ancient religion. It is difficult to locate its origin in the annals of human history, especially when we consider the fact that it is not a dogmatic religion based on the teaching of one founder, but formed out of the amalgamation of many traditions and streams of thought. We do not know which of its traditions is the most ancient, whether it is the Vedic tradition, the tradition of the Saivas, the ideas of Sangam era, the practices of Sindhu Saraswathi civilization or a combination of all these and even more emanating from the wandering communities of the Himalayas, central Asia, Mesopotamia and beyond from the heart of Africa and the Arctic. All these are believed to be part of its ancient history as debated by many scholars while putting forward their own hypothesis to locate its origin and the source of the Vedas.

So on the one hand we have this traditional and puritanical argument that Hinduism is an eternal religion and its tenets are unchangeable and inviolable, and on the other we have a strong body of evidence that the native traditions of India were never the same all the time and they underwent a great deal of churning and metamorphosis. It is even difficult to push away the nagging feeling that perhaps the teachings of Kapila, Gosala, the Budha, Mahavira and countless other sects that were lost in history were versions of the same tradition that introduced us the concepts of karma, rebirth, salvation of the soul, reproductive energy and even a skeptical attitude towards the role and the presence of an omnipresent creator God.

To those who are familiar with the multidimensional aspects of Hinduism, this is another contradiction within its folds, which, like many other, is difficult to reconcile for the people accustomed to rigid thinking and fixed set of beliefs. If you believe in the Puranic timeline and dispute all academic research done on the subject and are like one of those impatient and intolerant people who want to rewrite history to correct all the past injustices of colonial era, it is difficult to convince you that Hinduism underwent an organic growth over a period of time.

But the truth is both arguments are correct. There are some aspects of Hinduism which are eternal. They are the core concepts, which remain unchanged and perhaps will remain so for centuries to come. The Vedas for example are eternal, especially their end parts, the Upanishads. They contain eternal knowledge. Even if the whole world is withdrawn by God, the truth contained in them will never change. They will remain eternal in all planes of consciousness and in all sphere of existence for all the time.

Then there are some aspects of Hinduism, especially the rituals, some practices and divinities, the ethics and the laws governing our social and religious conduct, which undergo change from time to time. If this is not so, Hindu women would be still committing sati and young girls would be still getting married as a matter of rule. We have come a long way from the time of human sacrifices to the present day of sacrificing our egos and energies in the service of God. We have learned to reconcile the differences between the Vaishnavas and the Saivas and also accepted the Buddha as a part of our pantheon. Even the Vedic rites and rituals are not spared from this fate. Of the thousands of rituals and samskaras we now perform just a few. Horse sacrifice is now simply unthinkable. So is untouchability or polygamy.

The concept of Hinduism as an organized religion is an invention of the modern mind. That was not how our ancients saw the religious traditions of India. For them each tradition that existed in their time was different and separate with its own merits and demerits. They argued and quarreled about them and used their intellectual knowledge to support or dispute the various ideas and thoughts that attracted their religious fervor, according to a set of beliefs and principles which they held as the standard (pramana) and part of God's eternal law (dharma). They believed in the mysterious ways of God to manifest truth in innumerable forms. It was only in the last few hundred years that the Hindu scholars began to bring together the native traditions under the umbrellas of what we now call Hinduism, partly because there was no other convincing alternative and partly because it helped in the process of India's unification, uniting the people to stand against the colonial power under a common leadership. Instead of seeing them as disparate traditions, we now consider them to be parts of the same ancient holistic tradition.

While the Vedas and other important texts remained the same over the centuries, our interpretation and understanding of them underwent profound change. In the last few thousand years, the same Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and the Brahmasutras were interpreted differently by different scholars. Sri Shankaracharya saw in them the principles of monism (advaita). Sri Ramanuja interpreted the same scriptures to justify the philosophy of qualified monism (vishishtadvaita), while Madhava relied upon the same scriptures to substantiate his view of dualism (dvaita). Our current knowledge and interpretation of the Bhagavadgita is also very different from what people thought about it a few centuries ago. Sri Aurobindo saw profound symbolism hidden in the depths of the Vedas. Others saw the structure of the entire human personality hidden in the composition and organization of the hymns and invocations to various deities. New revelations about the Vedas and the scientific truths they contain keep coming up frequently in discussions and academic circles.

Now what is happening? The books have not changed! They contain the same hymns. Some of the verses are so esoteric and couched in such symbolism that they may even sound vulgar or superstitious to a sensitive mind. They are the same as they were thousands of years ago. But what changed was our attitude towards them and our understanding of them. We may now pick up a copy of the Vedas from a book seller on the footpaths of Mumbai or from the dusty racks of a bookstore in Delhi that may also be selling pornographic materials or crime novels. A few thousand years ago it would have been a sacrilege to violate the sanctity of a sacred scripture like the Vedas by putting them in the vicinity of impure things.

But it has all changed now. Our consciousness has flowered. Our minds are stretched. Our capacity to extend our thinking and imagination to grand new levels has increased. We now do not have to spend 20 or so years to remember and master each and every word of a scripture and memorize it by heart. Our lives do not depend upon it anymore. We can store an entire scripture and its related works online or in our computers and refer to them whenever we want. Freed from the rigors of memorizing and toeing the guru's line of thought to secure his patronage and teaching, we have now the freedom to focus on the meaning of the text rather than its syntax, on its substance rather than its content and on its essential truths rather than its confusing details. It is not that they are unimportant or irrelevant. But that is what the general public would like to focus. We have the freedom to think in our own creative ways, independent of any Guru Tradition (parampara) and previous scholars. We don't have to know even Sanskrit. If we can decipher the meaning of the words, we can make sense of them both intellectually and intuitively. It will be much more helpful if you are born in Hinduism and brought up in the traditional Hindu way. But if you are born elsewhere, it does not deter you from exploring its truths and becoming a pious Hindu.

As the time went by, our attitude and devotion towards various Hindu divinities also underwent profound change. The Vedic gods like Indra, Varuna and Agni were subsequently replaced, in terms of importance and veneration, by other gods like by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. With the emergence of the epics and the Puranas, divinities like Ganesha, Skanda and Hanumantha assumed more prominence among the masses for their personal appeal and religious significance. Siva enjoyed immense popularity throughout the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent for several centuries, before Vishnu took over. Today Vaishnavism dominates every other Hindu sect in terms of popularity and mass following.

Many of our practices and rituals also underwent change. The Vedic people worshipped devas (gods) through rituals, invoking their support and extolling their virtues by chanting various mantras. Some rural and remote communities indulged in sacrificial rituals, killing animals and sometime humans, to appease their mysterious gods. Old people went to the forests, as a part of their religious duty, to undergo penances and slow starvation to waste away their bodies and release their souls. Then came the domestic and temple worship of divinities through flowers, incense and offerings. The esoteric and strange practices of the tantric sects gained momentum, as people lost faith in the efficacy of the Vedic rituals. People built places of worship like temples, first with wood and then with stone, to house the divinities and worship them regularly in a systematic way to foster the feelings of religious duty and brotherhood in society and fulfill their social, moral and religious obligations.

In the course of time, ancient Indians also learned from other religions, with which they came into contact, and incorporated many new practices and beliefs into their own. They assimilated the practices of the Greeks, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Zoroastrians, the Assyrians, the Christians and the Muslims, while contributing richly to each of them. There was a time when half of the world owed its religious knowledge and practices to the Indian subcontinent. They learned how to worship the divinities with flowers and incense. They learned how to erect monuments in memory of our gods. They learned how to organize spiritual communities and ascetic movements according to a set or rules and code of conduct. They learned the importance of surrender to God, personal worship and divine love, which were absent in the Vedic period. They learned how to liberate the soul through the practice of yoga and inner purification. They debated various ways in which creation might have become possible. They probed into the mysteries of human existence to understand their true identity and the real purpose of their lives. In a land of the brightest and the best, people kept pushing themselves to the edge of knowledge to transcend their limitations and overcome their ignorance.

Our social practices also underwent profound change. We have moved a long way from the caste conscious Hindu society, which considered any interaction with outsiders and travelling abroad as a great sin, to a society that accepts people from all wakes of life and all nations to join the religion and become part of the global Hindu community. Many social and religious reformers worked hard, braving criticism and resistance, to remove caste barriers and injustice to people in the name of social and caste privileges.

Hinduism acknowledges six different philosophies, which we call as the six darshanas (perspectives or points of view). Of them only two, both the Mimansas1, are based on the Vedas. The rest are based on the teachings of various philosophers, saints and seers. Each of the darshanas underwent a profound transformation over the centuries, including the two Mimansas. Some of the darshanas do not even acknowledge the existence of God or His role in creation. Technically, each of the six darshanas stands in its own right to be considered as a separate religion, having a history and following of over 2000 to 3000 years.

Those who argue that Hinduism is an eternal religion also take pride in the fact that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. It is very true. But it also true that, while some of the basic tenets of Hinduism remain unchanged, the Hindu way of life changed over the centuries. Present day Hindus now acknowledge the status of women and the equality of all castes and communities. Their children now go to public schools and acquire education, without the need to live in the gurukulas and beg for their food. They do not consider it objectionable to see their women go out of their homes to study or work. Their eating habits have also changed. Most Hindus do not mind eating and sharing food with people of any caste or religion. They regularly visit the restaurants and fast food joints, seldom worrying about who might be preparing the food and whether it is sattvic or rajasic or tamasic. Inter caste, inter racial and inter religious marriages are on the rise as people migrate and settle in various parts of the world.

The fact is no matter what, every religion undergoes transformation. In every religion there are some aspects which never change and some which undergo change from time to time, according to the circumstances, perceptions and popular opinion. Every religion is eternal in its own way, because they all come from the same source, God, and every religion is vulnerable to change, decay and decline, as people's perceptions change and new religious ideas catch their attention.

We have historical records to believe that the Bible more or less remained the same over the last 1700 or so years and the Old Testament for much longer. While the contents of the Bible remained the same over these centuries, Christianity itself underwent many changes. Christians no more excommunicate the heretics, or burn the witches or acknowledge universally the Pope as the supreme commander and leader of the entire Christian world. Many Christians now believe there is more than one way to salvation. According to a recent survey conducted in the US, a majority of the Americans, nearly 70%, believe in a mixture of religious beliefs rather than one particular dogmatic religion.

The Quran is preserved in its pristine purity ever since its revelations were preserved by the early followers. But despite reprisals and resistance from the clerics and the orthodox elements, Islamic society underwent a great deal of change over the centuries and continues to do so till now. In non Islamic countries Muslims have to be content and adjust to the local jurisprudence however radically different the laws may be from their scriptural injunctions. They have to live in harmony with non believers for the sake of communal amity and peace of mind. So is the case with any minority religious group in any part of the world. The Jews suffered a great deal after their migration out of Israel. So did the Parsis after their civilization was destroyed.

Both Buddhism and Jainism underwent schisms as time went by. Many new schools of thoughts emerged to interpret and reinterpret the teachings of their original masters. The Mahayanas and Svetambaras took a radical stand and parted their ways from the orthodox schools. They had their own convictions and justifications to do so. It does not mean that they changed the teachings of the founders. They just understood them differently and interpreted them differently.

This is the way life. As time goes by, we adapt and change according to the challenges and circumstances we face. Our religions undergo change and evolve, as we evolve mentally, intellectually and spiritually. We find new truths in the mine of same knowledge, as our awareness expands and our thinking leaps into newer orbits. Each day the consciousness of the earth and of the humanity receives new insights, new inventions and new discoveries. Flashes of insight descend into us, as our memories fade and our bodies age. New spiritual masters arrive as the old ones depart, to continue the work and keep the world aspiring for new possibilities and new understanding. The world is never tired of spinning on its own invisible axis. It keeps churning new dreams and delusions, laughing at those who think they can control its momentum or direction, as people come and go like the fireflies on a windy night.

Every religion has a soul and a body of its own. They are the higher knowledge and the lower knowledge, to which the Hindu scriptures keep referring frequently to remind us of what should be our priority. The soul part aims to uplift, purify and enlighten the individual souls so that they become part of the Light from which they emerged. The body part aims to deal with our delusions, feelings, passions, emotions, ignorance and the lower nature. The soul part is for the guidance and liberation of the soul and the body part for keeping the ego under control. The soul part is the axis and the body part is the substance that rotates around it. In truth the substance is the same, but since it rotates it appears differently in different time frames.

Simple truths do not appeal to us. We need distractions. We need rituals, noise, the delusion of being separate, different, important, devoted, sincere and moral. We need the illusion of activity to stroke our egos and believe that we are making progress. We therefore build a mirage of activity around the central truths of each religion and keep ourselves looking in the direction of the world to fulfill our personal agendas. We do the same when we follow a spiritual guru. Instead of putting his teachings to sincere practice, we elevate him to God and begin to worship him. We identify God in every guru, except in ourselves. We organize associations, community bhajans (singing), reception parties and collection drives, to prove our involvement with the movement, forgetting the central purpose for which anyone should seek a guru.

There is no unanimity in any religion. Each of them has undergone one or more divisions. A great many people, from various religious backgrounds, get caught in the superficial aspects of their religions and keep fighting about the details and the differences they perceive within their own religions and in other religions, ignoring the eternal truths and values that would liberate them. For them religion becomes a source of distraction rather than inspiration. They become lost in the web of fantasy, seeking meaning in the medley of religious drama, without improving their conduct and cleansing their souls. To all of them this is the advice: religion is the last of all illusions. It is the final frontier we need to cross in order to see the Truth face to face. It is the last barrier God puts up in front of you before you can experience His universal and unconditional love. If you do not have proper discrimination (buddhi), you will be lost in the labyrinth of your religious beliefs and superstition and never stand face to face with the Truth. Religion does not guarantee salvation or heaven. It indicates possibilities and alternatives. It points to the way. It is your personal conduct and your inner purity which will redeem you, whether you follow one religion or the other. For a sincere follower of any religion a few lines of God's core revelation is sufficient to attain liberation. We do not need tons of knowledge to open our hearts and purify our consciousness.

Our ancient seers were aware of this fundamental truth. So they distinguished the religious literature into shrutis and smritis. The former contained direct revelations of God and the latter the insights gained by best of the human minds. If you are interested in your liberation, you should focus on the eternal values represented in the shrutis and put them into practice. You can refer the smritis to improve your knowledge and understanding. But you should not get caught in the intellectual wrestling of your opinions.

The soul of Hinduism is eternal. The body that we build around it with our thoughts, practices, beliefs, superstitions and practices, keep changing from time to time. Part of Hinduism is evolutionary and part of it is eternal. We need to know the relative value of each in our spiritual progress and act accordingly. This, in essence, is the truth about Hinduism and for that matter all the religions.

Suggestions for Further Reading

 

Footnoes

1. The six darshanas are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimansa. Of them the last one is also referred more popularly as the Vedanta or the end part of the Vedas. Purva Mimansa is concerned with the Vedic rituals and Vedanta with the philosophy of the Upanishads

 

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