by Jayaram V
There is a misconception among many Hindus that since Hinduism
is not a religion in the strictest sense of the word, but a way
of life, everything that we do in our lives is acceptable to the
religion. This is a simplistic attitude with serious consequences
for the future of Hinduism and the values it represents.
Hinduism does indicate that human beings are completely responsible
for their actions and the way they chose to lead their lives. It
gives them complete freedom to follow their inherent nature and
explore their inner world to arrive at the absolute Truth about
themselves and their existence. However, this does not mean that
it advocates permissiveness or an incorrect way of life. It cautions
its adherents to be wary of the illusory nature of our existence
and suggests several ways and means to deal with it.
The scriptures make it amply clear that whoever indulges in wrong
actions has to suffer from the consequences of such actions. The
epics and the stories from the Puranas convincingly illustrate this
fact. They depict how the asuras or demons who live their lives
wrongly and egoistically and indulge in incorrect actions suffer
from divine retribution as well as from the consequences of their
evil actions. Repeatedly they emphasize in many words, through aphorisms,
stories and verses, how wrong actions would lead sinful people towards
the darkest hells and their moral and spiritual downfall.
Therefore, the religious freedom Hinduism offers should not be
misconstrued as religious permissiveness. A person who willfully
chooses to follow a wrong way of life has to suffer from the consequences
of his actions. Religious freedom means living one's life with a
great sense of responsibility, not irresponsibility. The responsibility
is primarily and essentially towards maintaining and following one's
basic dharma (meaning duty). Your duty comes with your position,
status, knowledge, fate and relationships. You have to perform those
duties that are obligatory to your position and status in life.
You can only avoid it at a great spiritual cost to you. This is
the message you will find in every major Hindu scripture, including
Hinduism does emphasize that one should live upon earth morally
and responsibly according to one's dharma and the authority of the
scriptures. Those who try to rationalize their wrong actions and
unethical living do so at their own peril. In this regard there
is neither confusion nor contradiction about what the religion stands
for and what it upholds. Let us examine how true this is.
According to Hinduism every human being, who is an aspect of
God, has to live, practice and protect his dharma or religious laws.
If he does not participate in God's work to keep the order and regularity
of the world (rtam) and does not protect His Law, he is not entitled
to moksha or salvation. Therefore, he has certain duties and obligations
towards himself, his family, his ancestors, gods, other humans and
He has a primary duty to serve gods and nourish them because
they keep a protective watch over him and help him to secure name,
fame, wealth, progeny and other material comforts. In return for
their services, the gods need to be nourished because they cannot
make their own food. If he does not make them offerings or acknowledge
their help, he will not only lose their support and blessings but
also morally becomes responsible for their becoming weak and vulnerable
against the demons. The gods exist not only outside in the macrocosm,
but also in the microcosm of each being as their internal organs
and power centers. In their subtle states, they are the spiritual
energies that reside in him and help him to progress towards Aditi,
the Light, and attain "Soma," the state of divine bliss.
It does not mean that the gods are selfish, weak, or biased.
The gods are obliged to help you if you observe certain conditions
and perform the ritual and spiritual sacrifices in your life according
to the injunctions of the Vedas. It means the gods are impartial,
who discharge their respective duties strictly according to the
rules of creation and the universal laws of Eternal Dharma, laid
down by the Supreme Self, including the law of karma, which means
their response to your devotion and propitiation may depend upon
your past deeds.
The scriptures are very clear about what be our attitude towards
religious texts and in case of doubt what we should follow. In Hinduism,
an individual must revere and respect the Vedas, because they are
revealed by God for the general welfare and guidance of the world
and contain nothing but truth. Since we cannot verify transcendental
truths with mere intellectual knowledge, we have to depend upon
the revelatory scriptures for fact check. Therefore, it is expected
that every devout Hindu should show respect towards these sacred
books, engage in their proper study and understanding called svadhyaya
(self-study) and practice the truths and laws prescribed by them.
Their knowledge may still be inferior to the self-knowledge achieved
through self-realization, but they are important for our spiritual
and material welfare.
The scriptures also suggest that every human being must live
selflessly. He will be responsible for his actions if he lives selfsihsly,
but becomes free if he lives selflessly and without egoism. It means
one should cease to exist as an individual to satisfy one's own
desires, and learn to see himself or the omnipresence of God in
everything and everywhere. He who sees Him in all and all in Him
would lead a deeply religious and spiritual life, because having
realized the presence of God in all, he develops compassion and
right attitude towards the whole creation of God.
Therefore, every Hindus is expected to live his life strictly
according to the laws laid down in the scriptures. He must perform
his daily rituals, obligatory duties, and various samskaras (sacraments),
which depend upon his position and status in society, and live the
four stages of his life (asramas) as prescribed in the scriptures.
Unfortunately, many modern Hindus have a poor knowledge
of Hinduism and great contempt for the observation of rituals, which
they believe are nothing but acts of superstition and blind faith. They
miss the obvious fact that the rituals are meant to inculcate in
us feelings of reverence and devotion to god or gods, and remember
our duties and obligations. The rituals are like milestones along
a path that remind us constantly that we are in a journey and our
destination is the immortal heaven.
A ritual is a method or a way. When we say that Hinduism is a
way of life, we are actually saying that one should live life upon
earth as if it is a sacred ritual. The whole process of living is
a great ritual, in which each individual offers himself as a sacrificial
offering to the divine spark within him and reaches the highest
state of realization. In truth, spiritualism is also a kind of ritualism
only, in which the spirit follows a certain prescribed path and
returns to its original state. In spiritual liberation, the Self
does not change into anything. It just regains its lost consciousness
and remembers what it has always been eternally. It is why it is
also called self-realization (atma-jnan). The emphasis on rituals
in the Vedas is to remind us that we are expected to lead our lives
according to a way or a method that would ensure our salvation,
and that method is verily the method followed by Brahman Himself,
for whom the whole creation is a sacrifice in which He participates
as the sacrificer, the sacrificed, the object of sacrifice and the
sacrificial host (yajamana).
Just as creation is a sacrifice in Hinduism, the life of each
individual is a sacrifice. Therefore, you are already participating
in a sacrificial ritual called life, in which, like Brahman, you
are the sacrificer, the sacrificed, the object of sacrifice and
the sacrificial host. From this perspective, demeaning rituals is
demeaning your own life and your role as an individual.
It is not an exaggeration to say that some degree of ritualism
is essential and integral to every religion. Whether it is religion
or military activity, management or holding a meeting, rituals add
structure and discipline to the human effort.
However superfluous they may appear to the Christianized Hindus,
the truth is rituals prepare us mentally to be part of something
and remain engaged with it. They divert the attention of otherwise
busy individuals from mundane activities and make them god-centered
or spirit-centered. It does not mean that we should follow the rituals
blindly. Hindus have the freedom to choose their rituals according
to their interests and inclinations and their goals (purusharthas)
One can always use discretion in choosing which duties and rituals
are necessary for one's material and spiritual Wellbeing. One can
formulate a way of life that is in harmony with one's inner being,
and values enshrined in the scriptures. One may even formulate one's
own rituals, as long as they incorporate the original meaning and
serve the same purpose for which they are meant, and discard those
that may offend one's own sense of justice. However, it does not
mean that the scriptures give a free passage to those who would
discard all rituals summarily, and choose a way of life that is
similar to that of atheist or agnostic.
One need not have to perform a sacrificial ceremony (yajna) in
the elaborate manner prescribed in the Vedas, if one is engaged
in the sacrifice of life dutifully and selflessly. One need not
have to perform even domestic worship (puja) if one has the right
awareness and correct attitude towards God and oneself and remains
absorbed in the contemplation of God.
Rituals can be performed physically as well as mentally. You
do not have to sacrifice living animals in a ritual to propitiate
the gods. You can sacrifice the animal tendencies in you to propitiate
your inner deities. The Vedas themselves suggest both the approaches
and emphasize their importance in the ritual of life.
If one understands the true meaning of a Vedic sacrifice and
try to make an offering of something mentally with sincerity and
devotion, it will lead to the same results. If one can pray reverently
in front of an image of a deity and mentally make offerings with
sincerity and devotion, it would lead to the same results as the
domestic ritual (puja) performed with the same degree of devotion
What is important is the attitude and feeling behind the act
of worship, not the ritual of worship itself. The Upanishads caution
us against insincere and empty ritualism, and emphasize the need
to live in the contemplation of Brahman rather than the ritual worship
of gods for material benefits.
Many Hindus of present day have a limited understanding of the
religious scriptures. Some very educated Hindus cannot even recollect
with accuracy the names of the four Vedas, or the names of our deities.
They do not know what the Upanishads mean and what they teach, and
they justify their religiosity under the belief that such knowledge
is neither essential nor useful for their spiritual progress.
Hinduism may be just a way of life, with many choices, and not
a dogmatic religion. However, it does not under any circumstances
advocates or approves irreligious, immoral or irresponsible conduct.
It always emphasizes the need to protect the Dharma and participate
selflessly in God's eternal duty to maintain the order and regularity
of the worlds. Your dharma is not anything that is imposed upon
you. It is something that you are born with. It arises because you
are an aspect of Brahman and in someway Brahman Himself. It is a
part of your previous samskaras. You cannot just wish it away. You
practice it because you want to be in harmony with yourself and
the world in which you live, not because society or an institution
has imposed the code upon you. You are one of the musical notes
in the symphony of life, and you cannot sound discordant and disrupt
the melody. If you are born with a particular sense of duty and
your family or society tries to manipulate you with their own sense
of values you have the right and freedom to choose your own, as
long as your actions or decisions do not disrupt the social and
moral order. This is where Hinduism gives freedom to each individual
to live according to their discretion (buddhi). It is where it helps
you to break free from conformity, conditioning and the authority
of institutions and traditions.
The original Vedic texts do not favor rigid social structure.
They suggest that one should follow the laws of dharma according
to one's discernment (buddhi) and since discernment depends upon
knowledge, intelligence and mental clarity, one should cultivate
both physical and mental purity (sattva). Human beings understandably
imperfect, since they are subject to the modifications of Nature,
and unless they work for their self-transformation through austerities
and yoga and bring themselves into harmony with the laws of God,
they cannot make spiritual progress.
The word "dharma" has a very comprehensive meaning in Hinduism.
In a general sense, dharma means the Eternal Law, or the Law of
God. It also means all the factors that arise out of it and lead
ones towards it. Thus, dharma not only means law or morality, but
also duty, obligation, religion, sacred teachings, faith, justice,
righteousness, morally actions, righteousness, inherent nature,
and so on. Dharma, thus very intricately intertwined into the very
process of living. You cannot separate the two. You cannot say that
you practice dharma only when you visit a temple or read a scripture.
You practice it always, as long as you exist, even when are asleep
Therefore, in Hinduism, protecting and upholding one's dharma
is the highest of all duties. Hinduism never says that if dharma
is attacked one should let it go and let the dharma be destroyed.
Even God would not remain silent, if dharma is threatened or if
there is an ascendance of adharma in the world. When dharma declines,
He incarnates to restore dharma and destroy evil or adharma. The
scriptures are clear about this. Life is a battlefield in which
a fierce battle rages between the good (dharma) and the evil (adharma).
The same battle goes inside each individual, in the physical and
mental planes and in ever organ of the body, except breath (because
breath is not subject to willful actions). It is the duty (dharma)
of all human beings who are endowed with intelligence, to protect
and guard themselves against evil influences and immoral actions.
If ignore this duty, the law of karma catches up with them and leads
them to their downfall.
Many Hindus, do not read the sacred texts because of lack of
proper knowledge, attitude and faith. They do not perceive any material
benefit in reading the scriptures, or reciting them, under the misguided
belief that the texts are mere books of rituals and outdated knowledge.
Most of them also think one can work for one's salvation, without
having to read the scriptures, worship gods, practice religion or
live morally. What they do not understand is that nothing is easily
attained in this world. If you spend twenty years to get a degree
in any subject, imagine how much effort you may require to gain
mastery over Self-knowledge. You cannot practice any religion without
knowing its scriptures, or practicing its doctrines, values and
morality. You cannot attain God, unless you live and act like one,
and share His duties in your capacity as an individual.
The Vedas are not texts of empty eulogy and ritualism, extolling
the virtues of gods and goddesses, who appear more like human beings
with the same number of defects as we find in ourselves. They are
filled with the wealth of divine wisdom. They contain innumerable
secrets, hidden beneath layers of symbolism, which become apparent
only to those who have the interest and the inclination, like Shri
Aurobindo, to silence their minds and listen with their hearts.
Aurobindo did not see mere rituals and gods in the Vedas. He saw
in them a deep symbolism alluding to the structure of the universe
and is immense gross and subtle powers. Even he did not fully understand
their significance, since the human mind has not yet reached that
level of purity and perfection to comprehend the transcendental
nature of our existence in wakeful state.
Many Hindu texts are presently available at reasonable prices
all over the world from many sources. One does not lose anything
by going through these books and trying to understand what they
actually mean. These books definitely help one to gain an insight
into the basics of Hindu religion and help one to develop a correct
attitude towards one's religion. At least we will be able to know
correctly what the right of way of living is.
Let us remember that in other religions, scriptures do occupy
the central part. These religions are more organized because an
understanding of the basic scripture is fundamental to the practice
of religion. While there are hundreds of Hindus who have never read
a Veda, or Upanishads, it is difficult to come across a Christian,
or a Muslim who has never gone through his or her holy book. Many
carry them to their places of work or keep it in their houses for
regular or occasional study. It is wrong to presume that Hinduism
does not prescribe study of religious scriptures. In fact it is
an essential and integral part of a person's education and religious
The purpose of this article is not to advocate blind faith or
blind following, but to make us understand the need for a judicious
exercise of choosing what is right and what is wrong for one not
in complete and total freedom but according to the scriptures (external
dharma) and one's own inner nature or internal dharma.
An individual has freedom in Hinduism to choose what is right
for him or her, but only after careful examination and analysis
of a given situation. One can always use one buddhi or intelligence
to know what is right and appropriate in any given situation, without
rationalizing one's inactivity, lack of interest and indifference.
Let us remember that Hinduism does not prescribe anyway of life,
but a way of life according to one's Dharma as prescribed in the
religious texts, especially the Vedas and the other sacred literature.
One should also have a clear idea of what is superstition and obscurantism,
in order to make his way of life the correct way of life. However,
one should never dismiss the very reading of the literature as an
exercise in futility. That would amount to leading a way of life
like a blind man groping in the darkness and accepting his blindness
as way of life.
Suggested Further Reading