Hinduism and Diversity

Diversity of creation

by Jayaram V

Hinduism has many distinguishing and unique features. Of them freedom of choice is one of the most important. You will find in it a variety of knowledge which you can use to improve your physical and mental well being, or your spiritual welfare. You can practice it with the sole purpose of reaching any or all the four aims of human life it upholds, namely religious morality, wealth, sexual pleasure, or liberation. Diversity is the nature of existence.

If your look at the world around you, you will see that it is characterized by diversity and multiplicity. Both denote the abundance of materiality. Such diversity exists even at the level of thought. You can approach the same subject from different perspectives and find multiple solutions to the same problem. If liberation is a problem for human beings, it logically follows that such a problem should have multiple solutions too. In Hinduism, therefore, you are not oppressed by the limitations of thought, doctrine, or beliefs to find your way to the abode of God. The assimilative nature of Hinduism arises from its acceptance of plurality and multiplicity as the defining and undeniable aspect of human existence.

Karma and its purpose

In Hinduism there is a place for both knowledge and ignorance (vidya and avidya), or higher knowledge and lower knowledge. You can choose whatever that suits you. You have the choice because Hinduism puts the onus of your liberation entirely with you. Your life is shaped by your actions. If you choose wisely, you make progress. Otherwise, you will remain stuck in the cycle of existence. In its ultimate aspect, karma is not a punishment, but a regulating system or a correcting mechanism that helps you to find your path and perfection, rather painstakingly, through trial and error.

Thus, from the law of karma each being ultimately learns that freedom comes with a price, and time that is wasted is gone forever. The deities of Hinduism do not micromanage your life or dispense justice according to your moral standards or relative values. They exist to perform their duties in creation and if your life is part of them, they will help you or hinder you. Justice is taken care of by the rules of Dharma, the divine law which is applicable to everyone, from the highest to the lowest. You will be shown warning signs when you venture into darkness, but no sentry will be at the gates to prevent you from entering it. Freedom with responsibility is the essence of the law of karma. No one, except you, interferes with your destiny unless you want it, choose it, work for it and pray for it. In the journey of life, you are your own enemy and your best friend. You become your own enemy if you act against your spiritual welfare, and you become your best friend if you use your knowledge and wisdom to make intelligent choices and seek the refuge of God.

Hinduism offers holistic wisdom

Sometime ago there was a news report, which stated that according to a survey a majority of people in the USA did not believe in a particular religion but held a mixture of beliefs from different religions. It was as if each invented a belief system of his or her own. The news is not surprising, because it reflects a basic human attitude to keep all options open when there is ambiguity and confusion. You cannot jump into any waters, even if you are a great swimmer, unless you know the depth and whether it is safe. It is the same wisdom which prompts you to avoid putting all your eggs in a single basket. Our survival instinct prompts us to explore all possibilities and opportunities. No one eats the same food forever because your body needs a variety of nutrients that can come only from different types foods. The same holds true for most of the things people use in their lives.

Our existence is characterized by diversity. There is nothing in the universe that cannot be approached by more than one path or direction. There is not a single human problem that cannot be solved by more than one solution. While diversity is so apparent in creation, strangely in religious matters people refuse to recognize any path or belief system other than their own. It is as if they believe that God has created a city of a billion wonders, but choose to create just one bridge and a single narrow road with high walls on each side to reach his residence in that city. If the whole existence is emphatically pointing to the reality of multiplicity and diversity as a normal and regular pattern, it is difficult to accept that the universe will conspire to create just one or two religions or one or two methods for our salvation, and that also nearly 14 billion years after the universe formally came into existence.

Diversity in theory and practice

Hinduism follows the diversity of creation in its methods and approaches. Through the millenniums it has gathered into its bosom numerous methods, beliefs and practices that often contradict each other. A follower of Hinduism does not have to be fanatical about his religious beliefs and practices and coerce everyone to approve them. He does not have to persuade others to serve his God, or follow his beliefs. He is not even expected to do it because it is against the code of conduct prescribed in the scriptures.

Hinduism does not insist on which path you choose or whom you worship because you are expected to arrive at them on your own according to your karmas and your spiritual state of mind. The soul in everyone is the same. It is pure, indestructible and devoid of qualities. It cannot be tainted or tempted. Therefore, from a divine perspective, in the totality of things it hardly matters how each soul makes its progress to the gates of the highest heaven. The gods of Hinduism, therefore, do not try to resolve all problems and imperfections and create a perfect world upon earth. They keep things and beings in their bounds to ensure order and regularity so that the wheels of creation keep moving on. The following is a brief account of how diversity is reflected in the beliefs and practices of Hinduism.

Diverse opinions

In Hinduism there is no place for dogma. The tradition provides an open ground to every theory and opinion to flourish or perish according to its merits. Every belief and practice in Hinduism is open to discussion and debate. The Vedas are considered supreme and inviolable. However, not all Hindu traditions hold them with the same esteem. Followers of certain Tantra and Shakta traditions recognize Agama and other Saiva texts as supreme instead of the Vedas. Debates and discussions have been part of Hinduism for several millenniums. The Bhagavadgita was indeed a debate in the middle of a battlefield. Scholars in ancient and medieval India regularly challenged fellow scholars either to prove their knowledge or disprove that of others. In both cases the purpose was to explore truth and establish Dharma on a firm basis. The earliest examples of such debates can be found in the Upanishads in which both men and women participated with great enthusiasm.

Diverse scriptures

Hinduism is not shaped or guided by just one scripture. Even the Vedas, which are considered the highest and most sacred, are four and each is divided into four parts with hundreds or thousands of hymns and prose passages. Except for Buddhism, there is no other religion that has as many varieties of scriptures as Hinduism and in as many languages. The most prominent scriptures of Hinduism are the four Vedas, the two epics, six Vedangas (ancillary Vedas), several Puranas (ancient legends), Sutras (summary texts), Itihasas (histories), Agamas (tantric texts), Gitas (songs or poems), Bhashyas (commentaries), Yogas, and Dharma Shastras (law books). Apart from them there are texts for every branch of knowledge, philosophy, rituals, science and profession. The religious texts of Hinduism contains Secular as well as spiritual information. They are broadly classified into sruti (the heard ones) and smriti (the remembered ones). The Vedas alone qualify as sruti, and the rest as smriti. The Vedas are used to validate existential truths that cannot be confirmed with the intellect, and the smriti texts are used to understand and interpret such truths with help of reason, intellect, and understanding.

Diverse divinities

Hinduism has a large pantheon or gods and goddesses, attendant and associate deities, demigods, celestial beings, saints and seers, whose number probably exceeds that of the population of several nations. In the pantheon of deities, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti occupy the highest place. Except for the original Vedic gods of Indra's heaven, the rest are practically aspects, emanations, incarnations, forms, manifestations and creations of these four divinities only. They are worshipped both as individual deities and as aspects of the highest Supreme Self. The Bhagavadgita affirms that devotees may worship any deity they choose. Those who worship the lesser divinities go to them, while those who worship the highest Supreme go to Him only.

Diverse philosophies

Hindu philosophy is broadly categorized into theistic (astika), non-theistic (nastika) and atheistic (lokayata) schools. Each has a long history, significance, and following of its own. The primary philosophies are six, called darshanas or six visions of truth. Of them some are theistic and some non-theistic. They interpret the nature of existence, God and reality in different ways. Disagreements and differences among them are as intense as the differences between any two major world religions. Of the six schools of philosophy, the Vedanta, derived mostly from the Upanishads, is currently the most popular and widely followed. Within the Vedanta school, there are several schools of thought which can be broadly classified into three distinct streams, non-dualism (advaita), dualism (dvaita), and qualified non-dualisim (vishistadvaita). The first one believes in only one Reality, Brahman. The second ones believe in the dual nature of existence and recognize both God and Soul, and God and Nature as independent eternal entities. The third believes in the apparent duality of existence and acknowledges souls and creation as a reflection of one supreme reality.

Diverse paths

In Hinduism the paths are many, while the highest goal is the same, which is liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. The Bhagavadgita states that the devotees of God can worship him in numerous ways because whichever path they may choose, they all lead to him only. For a Hindu, practically anything and everything, from an inanimate object like a stone to the body and mind of a living being can be the means to attain God. Devotees can use gross and physical methods or highly spiritual and subtle methods to declare their devotion or work for their salvation. They can externalize their worship through rituals, prayers, magical formulas, austerities, sacrifices and pilgrimages, or internalize it through withdrawal of the senses, meditation and concentration. Worldly people use rituals (avidya) to perform their obligatory duties and propitiate gods, while spiritual people use self-knowledge (vidya) to work for their liberation. The tradition also gives freedom to individuals to worship God as idols, images, objects, symbols, and mystic diagrams, or mentally as the highest formless, invisible Supreme Self. For their transformation and liberation, devotees also have the freedom to worship the ultimate highest Reality variously, as male, female, male and female, Nature, God, both, or just as their inner Self (Atman). In all these practices, they can use knowledge (jnana), duty (karma), renunciation (sanyasa), devotion (bhakti) or a combination of all of them.

Diverse aims

Hinduism do not separate your secular duties from your religious ones. Your life and activities are not separate from your religious duties and obligations. Your existence is part of God's eternal existence. Since you are an important and integral part of God's creation, and since as an aspect of God you reflect His intelligence and divinity upon earth, you have a share in his duties and responsibilities. Hence, as his representative or agent upon earth, you have to perform them all as your obligatory duties. It means every human being who has faith in God has the freedom and the obligation to use any and every aspect of life to express his allegiance to him and earn a right to enter his heaven. In that great sacrifice of life, the very act of living becomes worship in the temple of creation. When life becomes a continuous sacrifice in which actions become offerings and oblations, the person who participates in it becomes free from consequences of his actions

Hinduism prescribes four chief aims of human life, called purusharthas, namely obligatory duties that arise from the functions of God (Dharma), wealth (artha), enjoyment (kama) and liberation (moksha). Of them the last one is considered the highest, because the first three aims are meant to be pursued with liberation as the ultimate goal. Followers of Hinduism are also expected to pursue all the four aims as part of their worship and divine service. For example dharma should be practiced to uphold the order and regularity of the world, spread good thoughts and propagate the best of human values. Wealth should be used to help the poor and the needy, practice charity and philanthropy and overcome selfishness and attachments. Enjoyment and sexual pleasure can be used to cultivate restraint. Thus, all the four aims are complimentary and meant to be practiced with one final aim.

Diverse rituals and methods of worship

In Hinduism, worshippers have numerous options and alternatives to worship their personal gods. The Vedic rituals and sacrificial ceremonies constitute the most traditional form of Hindu worship. Some of them like Agnicayana and Asvamedha are so elaborate that they may take months and years to complete them. Some Vedic rituals are simple and do not require much effort or time. However, most of them which involve offerings to gods cannot be performed without the assistance of trained priests. Every Vedic ritual has a beginning, a middle, and an end, each performed with specific methods, prayers and specific number of priests. Other major forms of ritual worship are vratas, poojas, arcanas, bali, and pilgrimages. The rituals are performed in temples, houses, and pilgrim places accompanied by elaborate arrangements, and offerings of flowers, fruits, food, prayers of varying lengths, incense, and other sacred materials. In higher forms of worship, the external rituals are internalized and deities are invoked mentally (manasa puja) with devotion and imagination. Meditation and recitation of the scriptures are also considered valid form of ritual worship in Hinduism.

Diversity in God's creation

In Hinduism unity and diversity are represented by God and Nature respectively. God is eternal, indestructible, unchangeable, and indivisible. Nature is also eternal and indestructible, but it is divisible and changeable. Together they represent the axis and the moving parts of the wheel of creation. Hindu scriptures suggest that one eternal God appears In Nature as many as a reflection, just like the reflection of sun appears in numerous objects upon earth. Nature provides the material for the diversity of God to manifest. The worlds are thus considered the projections of God. The quality of God's manifestation in the cosmos depends upon the purity and luminosity of the objects. For example, in worlds and objects that are subtle, pure and luminous, He reflects most of His divinity. Hence, they are considered worthy of worship. In human beings his Reflection appears brightest in intelligence, because it is entirely made up of the finest sattva. In impure objects that are filled with tamas, most of his luminosity and divinity remain suppressed. The human body is mostly filled with tamas. Hence, our bodies do not reflect much of God's divinity or luminosity. In living beings the soul represents oneness and the body the diversity.

Customization and personalization

Hinduism emerged from many streams of thoughts and schools of philosophy. It represents the collective wisdom of generations of people who tried to transcend their limits and find answers about not only our existence, but also our status and role in it. Its knowledge is derived from multiple traditions, philosophies, beliefs, practices, and traditions, which represent both the highest and lowest of human aspirations. Since it offers many choices, it allows you to customize your beliefs and practices according to your needs and convictions.

The practice is again directly related to the law of karma. You make the decisions and necessary effort to create your life and destiny. In religious life, you choose your path, your methods of worship and approaches to liberation. If you like to go to temples, you can visit as many temples as you like and offer your worship. If you are more introverted and spiritual and believe in the invisible and eternal Self, you have the opportunity to practice spirituality and probe into your own being. If you do not believe in God, people may raise their eyebrows, but you will not be ostracized or condemned as an enemy of God. God, the Supreme Brahman is considered both existence (sat) and non-existence (asat). In the world of duality, a theist is attracted to sat (manifested) Brahman and accordingly worships him, whereas an atheist is drawn to the asat (unmanifested) Brahman who is unknown and cannot be known, and remains fixated upon him. Both see, but one side of the Realty and fail to comprehend the true nature of Brahman. When a cool breeze rushes past your body, you may wonder where it is or just enjoy its pleasant touch. The choice is yours.

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