Faith or Shraddha in the Practice of Hinduism

Brahma, the Creator God

Brahma, the God of Pure Consciousness

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay is about the importance of faith or shraddha the religious and spiritual practice of Hinduism as described in the Bhagavadgita and Upanishads. .

Faith refers to your belief, conviction or acceptance. The object of your faith may be anything which appeals to your imagination, values, desires and expectations, about which you may feel credence or certainty without rational justification. It may be God, religion, a person, teacher, teaching, system, instruction, institution, idea, and so on. When reason fails and direct proof is absent, faith becomes the support. An interesting aspect of faith is that it can invent its own reasons, justification or value system to sustain itself, especially when it becomes a defining aspect of one’s personality, identity or morality.

We cannot live without faith. It is true in case of atheists, scientists and rationalists also. They may not believe in God, but they believe in their methods and their assumptions. The word faith is derived from the Latin word, “fides,” meaning that in which you trust or confide. In a wider context, faith refers to religious faith. It is the alternate word for religion in many parts of the world. In medieval Europe the word was used to denote religion or religious faith. The Judeo-Christian religions are predominantly faith based. To practice them one has to believe in God, the Prophets, the scripture, the institutions and the essential doctrine.

When you have faith, you accept the object of your faith at its face value. Your beliefs influence your thinking and behavior and the way you act and react to events and situations. Faith gives you a certitude in an uncertain and complex world, where chance plays an important role. In Sanskrit faith is known as shraddha (sraddha, zraddhA, श्रद्धा). However, it has other connotations and does not mean just faith. It is a combination of faith, desire, respect, reverence, inclination and interest.

Shraddha is the means by which one has to overcome doubt and uncertainty. It is essential to achieve efficacy in any action or endeavor, be it performing a ritual, worshipping a deity, studying or reciting the scriptures, uttering the hymns and sacred mantras, observing penance or austerities, practicing yoga or performing one’s duties. Without faith one can neither stabilize the mind nor perform any task with concentration and dedication. Tradition recognizes three factors, which are essential to achieve success, stability, peace and happiness in life. They are shraddha (faith), bhayam (humility colored by fear) and bhakti (devotion). To achieve purity and cross the ocean of life, you must have firm faith in the inviolability of Dharma, fear of sinful consequences, and unwavering devotion to God.

Faith (shraddha) is an important aspect of Hindu religious duty and practice. However, in matters of faith Hinduism is not dogmatic or rigid. Faith is considered to be the reflection of a person's essential nature, choice and karma. It may arise from knowledge or ignorance or delusion. A person is verily made up of his faith only. Faith in God is not essential for a person to continue his or her existence upon earth. However, one must abide in some form of Dharma and be not a source of evil or suffering to others or the cause of disturbance, violence or chaos.

For example, some schools of Hinduism do not believe in the existence of creator God, while different sects worship different gods and goddesses according to their faith and inclination. Hinduism accommodates such diversity within its comprehensive framework as aspects of the same truth. Faith in a particular deity or path is not important. What is important is faith in the methods you choose and the goals you pursue according to the best of your wisdom and discernment.

It is not easy to sustain faith without conviction in your methods or your spiritual goals. Interest or inclination in liberation and spiritual practice must arise from within through inner transformation, not through blind faith or the fear of authority. One reaches that stage only through numerous births and deaths. In Hinduism, we rely upon three methods to ascertain valid knowledge and sustain our faith and spiritual practice. They are:

  1.  Direct experience (pratyaksha)
  2.  Circumstantial evidence or inference (anumana) and
  3. Validation from the statements of the scriptures or the words of an enlightened master (shabda).

It is difficult to have a direct experience of God or Self. Only a few people are born with self-knowledge or the yearning for liberation. It is equally difficult to discern the presence of God or metaphysical truths through inference or circumstantial evidence without skepticism. In the absence of both, we have recourse to scriptural validation only to sustain and justify our religious beliefs and spiritual practices. Thus, in Hinduism, scriptural knowledge and the teachings of masters play an important role in sustaining and strengthening the faith of the devotees. For that, first you must have faith in what the scriptures say or the gurus teach. In Hinduism, faith mainly refers to the following.

  • Faith in the Supreme Self (Brahman)
  • Faith in the individual Self (Atman)
  • Faith in the working of Nature (Prakriti)
  • Faith in gods, demigods and celestial beings (devas)
  • Faith in the Vedas and other scriptures
  • Faith in God as the creator and source of all
  • Faith in a Guru or spiritual teacher
  • Faith in Dharma (obligatory duties)
  • Faith in karma, fate and bondage
  • Faith in sin and suffering
  • Faith in the transmigration of souls
  • Faith in the afterlife
  • Faith in spiritual transformation
  • Faith in the path
  • Faith in liberation

Hinduism does not advocate blind faith (mudha) or impure faith which arises from desires, ignorance or delusion. Both are considered inferior and problematic since they lead to bondage and suffering rather than liberation. Faith of the superior kind must arise in a pure heart, finding its sustaining strength in the knowledge and discernment of an awakened mind. It must be firmly established not by chance, pride, fear, vanity or demonic resolve, but through study (siksha), knowledge (jnana), discernment (buddhi), inquiry (vichara), restraint of the mind and senses (nigraha), and purity (sattva) of the heart and mind.

The scriptures affirm the connection between faith and spiritual awakening. Faith of the purer kind manifests only in the hearts of awakened devotees (yuktas). For example, the Bhagavadgita (3.31-32), states that those who constantly follow his teachings with faith and without envy, anger and intolerance are freed from the sinful effects of karma. In the fourth chapter (4.39) it states that the faithful one, who is intent and has control over his senses, gains knowledge, and through that knowledge quickly attains peace, but the one without knowledge and the wealth of faith, and with a doubting mind, quickly perishes. In other words, the scripture does not recommend blind faith, but faith which arises from the purity of the mind and body, and from knowledge (jnana).

The quality or purity of faith also depends upon the person who practices it and his or her methods and spiritual aims. For example, faith in ritual knowledge and practices (avidya) is inferior to faith in spiritual knowledge and practices (vidya). This is affirmed in the sixth chapter of the scripture (6.46-47), which declares that a yogi who engages in meditative practices to stabilize his mind in the Self is superior to those who practice austerities (tapah), pursue scriptural knowledge (jnana) or engage in obligatory duties (dharma-karma). Among such yogis, the devotee who worships God with his mind fixed upon him and who is filled with firm faith (shraddhavan) is superior.

In Hinduism liberation is the ultimate goal for which faith in God, your teacher and path are important. However, since diversity is the characteristic feature of existence, it does not define the faith or the belief for you. It is up to each devotee to worship God according to his or her faith. Your faith is shaped by your essential nature and past karma, in which the gunas play an important role. The Bhagavadgita (7.21-22) states that God does not discriminate between people based upon their faith. A devotee may worship with faith in any god, in any form, and he will strengthen the faith of that devotee. He is the only one who fulfills the desires of all devotees even if they seek to fulfill them by worshipping other gods with faith.

Accordingly, the scripture distinguishes three types of faith namely pure (sattvic), impure (tamasic) and mixed (rajasic). The purity of faith is in proportion to the presence or the predominance of sattva. People who are endowed with sattva worship the highest gods, those with rajas worship yakshas and rakshasas, and those with tamas worship ghosts, spirits and demonic forces. Their methods of worship may also vary. Sattvic people engage in Vedic rituals and keep the gods in the body happy by making them offerings of food, but those with demonic resolve torture their bodies and subject them to cruelty and suffering.

Their devotional temperament and attitude also vary. Sattvic people practice their faith strictly according to the established procedures and scriptural injunctions. Rajasic people do it out of selfish desires, pride and vanity, whereas tamasic people disregard all norms and conventions and act according to their convenience or interest. The Bhagavadgita (17.28) unequivocally declares that any offering which is made without faith in a sacrifice or given in charity or burnt in austerity or any religious duty which is insincerely performed without faith is false (asat), and is of no use here and hereafter.

The Upanishads also emphasize the importance of faith in ritual worship as well as in spiritual practice. Faith is the sustaining force to acquire knowledge from a qualified teacher, practice austerity, purify the mind and body and attain liberation. The Prasna Upanishad (1.2) emphasizes the practice of austerity, chastity, faith, reverence and service to the teacher in acquiring the secret knowledge of the Self. The same qualities also help an aspirant to achieve liberation and travel by the northern path to reach the immortal world (1.10).

Faith is the fuel in the sacrifice of life, from which either liberation or rebirth emerge as the sacrificial remains. Faith is the oblation in the sacrifice of knowledge, of actions, of renunciation and of liberation. Even gods pour faith as an oblation in the sacrifice of creation. Faith opens the doors to the transcendental world. It leads you beyond the subtle worlds of your consciousness and brings you into contact with the Self. Intelligence (buddhi) guides your reason, whereas faith guides your heart and your devotion. It is the heart which sustains and strengthens your faith, while reason questions it, challenges it and tries to dispel it.

Therefore, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad rightly states (3.9.21) that the resting ground of faith is the heart. It is in the heart one becomes aware of faith. The heart is also the resting place of the Self and the seat of devotion. Hence, there is no better way to reach the Self and achieve union with it than through the heart, and no better means to do it than selfless devotion and desireless faith. Where there is pure faith, there is devotion and the divine presence of God or the Self. Thus, faith which arises in the purity of heart is the bridge or the raft, by which you cross the ocean of impermanence and reach the immortal world of Brahman.

The Mundaka Upanishad (2.1.7) states that Brahman is the source of faith, penance, truth, chastity and fate (vidhi). Faith is also the foundation to acquire the knowledge of the Self and attain liberation. Without faith, the mind cannot firmly be established in the study and recitation of the scriptures and contemplation of the Self. Hence, in another verse (3.2.10) it stipulates that the knowledge of Brahman (brahma vidya) should be taught only to those who offer themselves as an oblation to the inner Self.

Faith manifests in our thinking and actions. If our faith is sincere, our actions and intentions will be sincere, and vice versa. In the pursuit of knowledge, faith is important. You must have faith in what you learn, and in the teacher, who imparts the instruction. Hence, the Taittiriya Upanishad (1.11) cautions students not to be insincere towards their teachers. They should be approached with faith and treated with respect and reverence. Any offering to a learned teacher must be made with faith and sincerity, not otherwise.

The importance of faith is also well illustrated in the Katha Upanishad, in the allegory of Nachiketa. When Vajasravasah performed a sacrifice and gifted old cows, Nachiketa was disappointed by the lack of faith and sincerity in his father. Feeling that his father’s insincere and faithless action would lead to sinful consequences and a rebirth in a joyless world and to neutralize it, he requested the latter to sacrifice him also. In a fit of anger, his father complied and gifted him to Yama, the lord of Death. In the afterworld, Lord Yama was impressed by his purity, sincerity and honesty, and taught him the secrets of liberation.

Faith is important not only in spiritual life and the pursuit of liberation but also in worldly life and in the pursuit of the other chief aims of human life namely dharma, artha and kama. It is the support and the motivation for the students to study religious knowledge, for teachers to teach the secret knowledge of the Self with honesty, for the kings to rule their subjects in a just and fair manner and for the householders to perform their obligatory duties with dedication. It is also needed by all people to bear with the pain and suffering of the world and live in hope and expectations of a better future.

Faith defines your life, values, beliefs and worldview. Much of what you know and remember is what you believe to be worth cherishing and remembering. Faith nourishes many other qualities in you such as trust, devotion, loyalty, commitment, dedication and self-assurance. Faith is an emotion or a feeling. Hence, its source is your heart rather than your mind or intelligence (buddhi). However, it can be sustained by them too and by a number of factors such as your knowledge, perceptions, experience, desires, expectations, intuition, associations, chance, fate, etc.

Traditionally faith is identified with the religion you practice, but it does not necessarily mean religious faith only. It can be mundane faith in the simple truths and possibilities of life. For example, you may believe that having a good cup of coffee in the morning is good for your mood or to wake up your mind. You may believe in certain people, leaders, political parties, ideologies or institutions, and you may actively try to associate with them or follow them.

Some beliefs are good and help you, but some can be problematic and a major source of afflictions and conflicts, especially if they are caused by the impurities of your mind such as egoism, evil thoughts and intentions, attachments, ignorance and delusion. One must use commonsense in matters of faith and act reasonably and moderately, avoiding the extremes or causing harm or disturbance to others.

Your beliefs define you and distinguish you. They reveal to the world more about you and your character and integrity than you can ever imagine. They shape your thinking and behavior, and in turn are shaped by them. From the time we are born until we die, we rely upon faith as much as reason, if not more, to make decisions and deal with uncertainties and difficulties. This can be a problem, especially if we are not properly grounded in right knowledge and right thinking. We may succumb to blind faith, irrational beliefs and delusion.

Your faith is a reflection of your character and integrity. If you are pure and honest, your faith will guide you in the right direction and lead you towards wisdom, peace and happiness. Therefore, if you want to cultivate the right faith of the sattvic kind, focus upon practicing yoga, right living, purification of the mind and body, cultivation of virtue, right knowledge and discernment. It elevates your consciousness and brings you close to God and the best and the purest in you.

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