The Great Religions By Which Men Live
Floyd H. Ross and Tynette Hills
2. THE UNITY OF LIFE
Thousand of years ago, the people of India, young and old, were wondering about the same questions that concern us today. Sometimes they tried to guess where human beings came from and where they would go after this life. They questioned further, too, even as we do. How was the world created, and how does it keep going? What is the purpose of the world? What is the difference between right and wrong? What am I? What is my place in the world? How can I really find myself?
Over the centuries, the Indians kept up the search for answers to their questions, constantly studying and interpreting their experiences in living. Each generation gave the next some suggestions about the best kind of life and the best ways of living, in the universe. Later, the people decided that some of these suggestions ought to he written down, in order that they might not be forgotten or changed, as was sometimes unwittingly done in the telling. The written suggestions became the scriptures of the Hindu religion. Some of them are so old that no one knows when they were first offered as possible answers to the questions of men.
The oldest ones are ancient poems and hymns, called the Vedas, which are considered to be as much as 3000 years old. The Brahmanas -- rules, which the priests gave for rituals of worship -- date from between 1200 and 1000 B.C. The Upanishads, dating from about 800 B.C., are answers that the renowned hermit-teachers of that period gave to questions about life and the universe. The Great Epics are philosophical and religious poems about legendary heroes and gods. They were ancient stories that had been told for generations before they were finally set down in writing at about the first century B.C. A short section of one of the Epics, the Bhagavad-Gita Gait, has become the favorite religious text in India.
If you could see all these scriptures together, you would see that the Hindu "bible" is much longer than the Bibles of Christians and Jews. Although the Hindu texts have been translated into English from the original Sanskrit writing, probably there would be parts of them that you could not understand without a Hindu’s explanation. Many of them would be interesting to you, for they contain stories and suggestions which attempt to answer the questions that men of today are still asking, in India and in America.
The stories in these books reveal a great deal about the Indian people who were searching for answers. For example, they reveal that the Indians valued wisdom. Among them were great students -- not in the sense of those who do assigned lessons in a school, for they did not have schools such as ours. Their students were men who studied and interpreted the things that went on around them, and in so doing, they became wise. The common people observed that the wise men seemed to be most successful in living. They did not become upset with trivial things, and neither did they have to go looking feverishly for ways to be happy. They were content -- at home with themselves. Since this seemed to the people to be the only true and lasting happiness they saw achieved, the man who had wisdom became a kind of national hero.
Wisdom was valued so much that the people went to great lengths to achieve it. There is one Indian story about a rich man who took much of his wealth -- 1000 cows, expensive jewelry, a carriage with many mules, and even his own daughter -- to pay a renowned sage to teach him the meaning of life. The Indians describe a man without wisdom as being like a frog in a dried-up pond, or like a fish out of water.
A story in the Upanishads tells about an unhappy young main who came to study under the direction of a wise teacher. The teacher first asked him what he already knew. The young man responded with the titles of all the books he had read and the passages he had memorized. Then he added sadly, "I know all this, but I do not know myself. I am unhappy. Please help me to overcome this unhappiness." The teacher agreed to help, pointing out that the trouble was that the boy was trying to find wisdom in knowing words about life, instead of seeking meaning in living. So for a while, under the tutelage of his teacher, the boy studied and meditated upon himself and his reactions to daily experiences. He became much happier and, at the end of a period of such study, felt that he was wise enough to continue his search alone.
What was the happiness which the boy found through self-study and which so many Hindus seek diligently today? It was the same thing they observed in their wisest men -- that at home with themselves. We all know at least one person who never seems to be quite able to settle down to one thing for very long, lie is always looking for something new and more exciting to do next. Another person we know appears poised in almost any place he finds himself. He seems to carry his contentment deep within. The Hindus would unanimously say that the second of our friends is the happier, for he knows himself better.
Like the unhappy young student, all people are discontented when they know just facts or just books or just things. Happiness can come only from knowing yourself. What does it mean to be yourself. Who are you? First, there is the "you" that people see and hear: the way you look, your voice, your mannerisms, your talents. Is that you? The Hindus answer that you are more than that. If you see your image in a mirror, or hear a transcription of your voice, or see yourself in a home movie, you agree with them. You are more than that.
In addition to the parts of your personality that people see and hear, there is your temperamental make-up. The Hindus have said that there are three general levels of temperament. The lowest level is inertia, unwillingness to change, or laziness. The second is aggressiveness and the capacity to be agitated by external forces. The third and best is tranquillity of spirit and the ability to remain undisturbed by outside forces. Each person has a little of each of these in his make-up. The aim is to eliminate inertia and aggressiveness from your temperament so that you may be calm and tranquil.
This is similar to the recent American emphasis on peace of mind. People are much happier when they are not disturbed by every little upsetting event. They can study and know themselves better when they have an unruffled temperament. And they will make no progress at all toward true happiness until they are willing to expand the necessary effort.
If you have ever taken the time to look inside yourself and try to explore what is there, you will realize that the things we have mentioned are not all there is to you. You have certain attitudes toward yourself, and these are part of yourself. Whether you are proud or ashamed most of the time, whether you look forward to or dread the rest of your life, whether you do more right things or more wrong things according to your own standards -- these things help to form your feelings about yourself. According to the Hindus, your feelings about yourself arise from the way you look and talk and from your temperament. These feelings and the facts from which they arise form what we shall call the "outer self."
Besides the outer self, there is an essential self, which you must know in order to be really happy. This very important inner self is the Atman. It is extremely difficult for anyone to help you understand exactly how to know the Atman. This is because only you can know your own inner self completely. Hindu teachers have given a few hints to help one in his search for self-knowledge. They have said that, since the Atman is the inner spirit of a man, it underlies all the fleeting experiences of life. It remains as the unchanging, permanent substance of you. All the qualities that make up the outer self are collected around the center core, the Atman, and are affected by it. But the Atman is not affected by them.
Some very wonderful things happen when a person succeeds in knowing what is basic and essential in himself. He learns that the everyday affairs, which may formerly have bothered him very much, are not really so important. This is because he has learned that the real center of his life is not affected by them. He learns to take a longer view of his experiences. He has perspective on life; life becomes unprejudiced and less emotional. He is able to make choices and to judge events maturely, because he is not blinded by his own emotions and attitudes. Hindus say that he has taken the most important step toward the most important human attribute -- wisdom.
WHAT IS REAL?
At the same time that the Hindus were exploring the question of what the real self is, they were wondering about their world. What kind of world is it? What was the power that had created the world and still made it continue? They looked about them and saw the trees, the mountains, the plains, and the rivers. They felt the rain and the wind. They came to know all the other living creatures with which they shared the land.
They realized that they could not say that the world was any one of these. Nor was it just the total of the things they saw and felt and knew. The world was more than all these things. The power that had made the world and made it continue was indeed more than the things in the world. But the world, they decided, was an evidence of that power, just as they themselves were. Everything in the whole universe,’ including themselves, was a result of the working of the creative and continuing force. All things were kin, then, because all had the same origin.
Thoughts such as these made them conclude that there is a fundamental unity of all existence and all experience. A Hindu will tell us that all apparent differences which people think so important are trivial and temporary. They seem for a time to be important, but soon they fade away or change. For example, all of us can distinguish between a living being and the elements of the earth. Yet, in death, all living beings return to the elements. There are no exceptions. The Hindu who points to such illustrations is trying to say that in the very beginning there was unity (no differences). In the end, there will also be unity. It is just a matter of time.
In the Rig Veda, there is the Hindu Hymn of Creation, which tries to explain how the world came to be. This hymn stresses that there was unity in the beginning, and no distinctions could be made:
The hymn goes on to tell about the power behind the world:
The important thing that the hymn emphasizes is the supreme unity of THAT (or THAT ONE). the ALL which lies behind or beyond both existence and non-existence. In THAT, there are no differences. Rest and action are joined, for example. Everything is united.
The Hindus use THAT to refer to the supreme One, Brahman. They use the neuter pronoun in order to avoid any idea of a manlike God or Creator or First Principle. They believe that Brahman is the ultimate reality behind and beyond all the things that men find to be "real" from experiencing them through the senses.
This is a different idea about God from that of most Christians and Jews. Many use the term "God" to mean a personalized God -- that is, a God who has characteristics like a person. For example, we are familiar with expressions like, "God loves," "God is merciful," "the face of God," "the hand of God." Hindus say that such personal descriptions are qualities people admire in other people. And since they believe that God is infinitely good, people surmise that God has unlimited amounts of these admirable qualities. But, say the Hindus, God -- if we use that term to mean the REALITY and the true nature of the universe -- is beyond such human representation. And that is what they mean by Brahman, or THAT.
In the Hindu religion, there are personal gods to be worshiped by those persons who so desire. Often it is these gods about which we are told most in writings on Hinduism. According to Hindu myths, the gods have wives (who are also worshiped), and they live almost like human beings. Out of a large number of gods, three are worshiped most by present-day Hindus. The three together form a Hindu trinity: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the savior; Shiva, the destroyer and restorer.
Hindus believe that the creation of the world is a continuing thing in which men share, not something that happened long ago in the past. Therefore, they believe that the three gods work to carry out the continual creation. At the end of each cycle or age in creation, Shiva destroys the old world. Brahma creates a new world. When, during the cycle, men face a problem they cannot solve alone, Vishnu comes as a human being or in some other form, with special powers to give the necessary aid.
The many other gods and goddesses are also worshiped in whatever ways the people see fit, with prayers, praise, and gifts. Devotees appeal to them to attend to and to bless all phases of human life. And yet, even while they worship the personal gods, the educated Hindus know that the gods are essentially human ideals that men imagine to be objective reality. They do not actually exist in the form in which the people think they exist. The real function of the worship of personal gods is to direct the worshiper to knowledge of Brahman, which lies beyond all men’s wondering and speculation about the universe.
One can always raise that most troublesome of all questions: "Why was a world created at all?" To this men have not found a final answer, according to the Hindus. Their Hymn of Creation mentions it:
But if men cannot know the reasons for the creation of the world, they can know something more important. They can know Brahman. The Hindu scriptures are full of suggestions about how a person may live his own life in order to experience the essential unity that is the pattern of all creation. When you know the Atman, your own "inner self," you also know the heart of the universe, Brahman, the "inner self" of all creation. A person can know Brahman only by knowing himself. Hindus say, "He who knows himself will know God."
One of their scripture readings describes it in this way:
Happiness lies in the direction of finding real meaning: the real self, the real nature of the universe. Brahman expresses itself in many ways -- in man, through the Atman. But Brahman is not one of the expressions: that is beyond them all. When a man truly knows the Atman, then he may know Brahman. When he knows both, he sees that Atman and Brahman are united. And man realizes the supreme knowledge, gains the supreme happiness. All the creatures and creations of the earth arc the same, bound up in inclusive Brahman. There is no diversity, no real difference in any part of reality. All are the same. All are one. "It is Brahman."
3. WHAT IS MY PLACE IN THIS UNIVERSE?
Why can’t I be happy?
These are the questions people often ask themselves and others when they are thinking about the ways they live their lives. For thousands of years, men of every race and nationality have offered seemingly good explanations for ways to be happy. Yet, persons in every generation and in every land live unhappy and sometimes worthless lives -- by their own confession.
Hindus say that one of the biggest reasons for man’s unhappiness is maya. Each person born into this world suffers from confusion and finds it difficult to know the important things in his experience because of maya. The world is maya in the sense that it is always changing from what it is into something else that changes and so on without ceasing. No man can know what the world is, for the world never is: that is, it never stands still long enough to be studied and explained; it is always becoming. Therefore, men easily become bewitched into attaching great importance to something that in reality is trivial.
Hindus do not mean that the world is not important, but they emphasize the fact that the world as we see it is not the real world. It continually confuses us. For example, if you look down a straight stretch of railroad tracks on a level roadbed, you will see the tracks meet in the distance. Actually they do not meet, but to you they appear to do so.
The eye, the hand, the ear, the touch -- all deceive us again and again. How can we be so sure that the world we "know" through our first-hand experience is the real world? We cannot be sure, answers the Hindu. Because we are so often confused by apparent truth, we must learn to interpret all our experiences, in order to find reality.
No matter how carefully wise men explained the danger of confusion because of maya and the importance of knowing Atman and Brahman, there were still some people who lived miserable lives. The Hindus were concerned about these unhappy people. Why did this happen? How could it be prevented? They wondered about such things as the inequality in abilities between persons, the inequalities in joy and pain. They wanted a reasonable explanation.
They decided that it did not make much sense to say that it was all a matter of accident or chance, or that Brahman was responsible for the inequalities. That would make Brahman unfair and arbitrary. It did not satisfy the questioners to say that all the differences would be solved in some eternity of "heaven" or "hell," because people did not seem to fall into two distinct groups of "good" and "bad."
Hindus found a satisfactory answer in a belief in reincarnation (or transmigration). Each person has had many lives and will go on having many lives -- enough to discover who he really is. Life is a school to a man; in it he comes to know Atman and Brahman. \When he attains this knowledge, he leaves the school of life. He does not need to enrol again; he has "passed the course."
Life is described by the Hindus as being like a stream or river, which flows ceaselessly, without beginning and without ending. All things are part of this stream of existence: stones, plants, animals, men, and so on. Everything exists in life after life until it has come to knowledge of the unity of Atman and Brahman. Each will have as many opportunities for coming to self-knowledge as he needs. This doctrine of reincarnation offers hope to all. No one will be punished for an unlimited period because of a limited number of mistakes.
There is a universal law, which operates throughout all life. Whatever is sown must be reaped sometime and somewhere. This is the law: every action, every intention to act, every attitude bears its own fruit. "A man becomes good by good deeds and bad by bad deeds," says one of the Hindu sacred writings. This means that each person is really responsible for his own condition, whether he is confused and mixed-up and unhappy -- or happy. We may want to put the blame on someone else, perhaps our parents. Or we may wish to carry it back to our grandparents or even to Brahman. But this is avoiding the real issue. You are what you are because of what you have done in the past. To a Hindu the past, of course, would include all previous lives or existences. Each person can break with that past only by stretching his mind and gaining knowledge of his real self.
The Indian writings emphasize that one must exert himself to know the Atman if the influence of past unhappiness is to he outgrown or cast off. But a person very often does not make this his goal. He ignores his real nature, and this is the chief evil from which he suffers. He is blind to his real capacities. Many of us sink into the rut of habit and let our past actions and attitudes govern the way we react to present situations instead of aspiring to higher goals. This is like a mountain climber who fails to reach his goal because in his fear of the heights he forgets his real desire to climb the mountain.
Many people live without thinking about it and simply react the way they always have. Hindus describe them as "rushing about like one possessed by an evil spirit; bitten by the world like one bitten by a great serpent." When a person finds himself running around in this distracted way, he should stop and remind himself, "This is not my true nature." Sometimes people do things, which they themselves cannot understand. "Why did I do that?" one asks himself later. Sometimes it is as though a closet door in our insides had suddenly burst open and things we had stuck inside came tumbling out before we could stop them. Sometimes such internal explosions are accompanied by a great deal of emotional expression: we get angry, we get sad, we become moody, and we have tantrums. Such actions are not the result of intelligent choice, but of the load of past attitudes and actions we carry with us. The way to overcome both maya and the influence of the past is to stop and ask, "But what is the real me? What is the Atman?"
CASTE AND DUTY
According to the Hindu teachings, every person has a specific place in life and specific responsibilities. Each person is born where he is, and with particular abilities that he has, because of past actions and attitudes. This underlies the whole pattern of society in India, and it includes what is known as caste. There are four main castes, mentioned in some of the Hindu writings. These are: (1) the intellectual-priestly group; (2) the nobility, including the warriors; (3) the administrative group, including merchants and landowners; and (4) the great masses of people who do the common work of a society. The class of so-called "untouchables" or "out-castes" (recently abolished by Indian law) was composed of people who had originally belonged to different sub-groups of the fourth caste, the masses. Through various social and economic conditions, they "lost caste," or lost their place in society.
Within the four castes, there are dozens of sub-divisions. Through the years, more than a thousand levels of castes have appeared in Indian social life; but all belong to one of the four main groups. In ordinary social life, caste lines have frequently reflected real injustices and strong prejudices. Many thoughtful Hindus today realize that abuses have crept into the system. In the twentieth century, many efforts have been made in the direction of straightening out some of the gross injustices. Gandhi was one who gave freely of his energies in restoring the "untouchables" to caste status.
The caste system serves to afford each person a particular niche in society, with certain duties to be performed in the best way he can. Just as no person can be someone else, neither can he pull himself out of one caste in this life and enter another. In successive rebirths, he can better his position -- if he does his present task well. It is also taught in India that even the lowest caste members may attain complete knowledge of the Atman, if they try hard enough. They can in that way attain the greatest fulfilment life has to offer.
4. WHAT SHALL MY LIFE GOALS BE?
OVER and OVER again, another question arose in the minds of the Indians: "What is my life for?" or "What should I do with my life?" Thoughtful Hindus came to believe that there are four basic goals, which include all valuable parts of human activity and give purpose to every life.
The most important goal for each person to achieve is release from the influence of past unhappiness. Each person has the fundamental aim all through life of escaping from maya through union with Brahman. To help the person in the process of reaching this goal, there are other lesser goals to be fulfilled along the way.
One of these is the life of pleasure, fulfilment of all normal human desires, including the very important desires rooted in sex. Hindus do not reject the sensory experiences of life -- development of creative relationships with other people, aesthetic appreciation, and sexual expression. The Hindus value these experiences when used correctly and not regarded as the only goals of life. The life of pleasure is included as one of the four goals of men.
Another human goal is participation in economic activity or public welfare, which includes working in some worthwhile job or profession. Each person has an obligation to himself and to society to do some useful work. For this he receives the wherewithal for his daily needs, and through it he contributes to the common welfare. A person’s economic responsibility to the community is not to be ignored as of any importance, for it is one of the four life goals.
The fourth important achievement for each Hindu is living the right kind of moral or ethical life. One has a duty to him and to others to do what is expected of him morally and ethically. The duty has been rather specifically defined in India, for each caste has a code of actions and attitudes, which are expected of its members. And to this code a person is pledged through all his endeavors if he wishes to attain the good life.
Large segments of Hindu teachings have been concerned with the idea of moral duty. Since Hindus stress the unity of all existence, they believe that one person is important to all other persons. This means that each must learn to rise above his own selfish interests. When deciding what to do, most people are tempted to say: "What am I going to gain from this?" Hindus say that we find lasting happiness when we do a thing because for us in our situation it is the right thing, regardless of the gain we receive.
"To work and work alone are you entitled, not to its fruits. Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working... Wretched are they who work for results." Thus reads a statement in one of their sacred texts.
We often say somewhat the same thing in noting that he who plays a game because he loves to play it is happier than he who plays to win. The more intent one is upon winning the game, the more he loses what the playing of the game can offer him. On the other hand, if one plays the game for the sake of the playing, the results take care of themselves. Win or lose, he will have had the satisfaction of playing. The Hindus say that it is the same with all of life’s activities. The important thing is how we feel about what we do and the way we do it -- not what we gain from it.
THE STAGES OF LIFE
The ancient Hindus knew that there were certain periods in a person’s life when one goal could be more easily sought than at other times. They divided life into several stages, and then they tried to point out what pleasures or actions were appropriate for each stage. Instruction in the four goals was to be given according to the individual’s readiness to learn about them and his ability to achieve them at that time.
For example, the child does not need to worry about his later economic and ethical obligations to society. He will have time to learn about them as he grows older. Neither is a child ready for an adult religious experience. Therefore, it would be foolish to expect him to achieve those adult goals. Persons whose duty to caste codes requires them to devote a great deal of time and effort to economic activity are not expected to be very concerned about that most important goal of union of Atman and Brahman. This is true of the lowest caste group, the workers. However, Indians have never claimed the members of the lowest caste cannot realize such a union in their present lifetimes. It simply is not expected of them, because they are required to be so busy with other responsibilities.
All male members of the three higher castes are advised to follow the suggested life plan, whereby they might attain all the goals. The ancient teachers who developed the plan emphasized the importance of studying and interpreting life. In following the plan, a man will become in successive stages a student, a householder, a retired man, and a spiritual pilgrim.
The Student Stage. The length of time spent in this stage varies, depending upon the particular caste to which one belongs. Every young man of the upper castes is expected to live for a time with his religious tutor who teaches him the ancient wisdom of India and directs his reading of the sacred books. Each student is personally helped to learn the meaning of life and is encouraged to find his proper place in it.
According to tradition, no young man in the student phase of his life is supposed to marry. In modem India, however, many of the old customs are not followed as strictly as formerly. Today, some marriages do occur before the young man has completed the usual student phase -- but they are comparatively few in number. Many Indian parents still choose the wives for their sons. Since the arrangements are made by the parents of the couple, usually when they are both quite young, the young man is not expected to take time from his studies to court his future wife.
In general, there is no social custom comparable to the dating done in the United States today. The adults do not pretend that young people are not interested in the opposite sex. They simply arrange that the interest will not be unduly aroused before the young people are ready for the responsibilities of children. For the three higher castes, this usually means after the young men have passed through the student phases of their lives. Indian law now requires that a girl must be at least fifteen years of age before she can marry; the boy may not be married before eighteen.
There are reasons why the student stage is important enough to be completed. Every person has a natural Capacity to wonder about life and to raise questions about it. Many of those questions are so big that no person has ever found more than a partial answer, but people seem somehow driven to keep trying to find answers, to learn and continue to learn. The student stage promotes this learning process.
According to Hindus, it also gives one a chance to get what they call his "second birth." The first birth was an event over which one had no control, but the second birth is in part an achievement resulting from one’s own efforts. The Indians call it a spiritual rebirth: a young person begins to see something of the meaning of life. It is essential that one catch the meaning of life before he assumes family obligations.
The Householder Stage. Although one should retain the student’s desire to learn, he cannot remain forever with a teacher. Soon the former student is expected to marry and undertake the responsibilities of parenthood. In the householder stage, the Hindu can attain three of the four goals of life. He can find the meaning of the life of pleasure, for the marriage relationship should help to release all the basic human energies and drives. Being a member of the family requires that the person make his own contribution to the economic stability of society by productive work. And certainly the householder has opportunities to do his duty according to the ethical code of his caste. If India has changed slowly through the years, it is because of the specific rights and duties that were regarded as binding on each person in each caste.
The Retired Stage. The three goals that can be attained in the householder stage of life are important. But they should contribute to a larger goal -- the finding of the real self and the real nature of the universe. Therefore, the Hindus provided for a third step, retirement from public life, at which time a man (and his wife with him, if they so wish it) might return to student interests. After one’s first grandchild is born, one is permitted to withdraw from business or professional activities, give up direct family responsibilities, and retire to a forest hermitage for study. In a group of like-minded retired persons, the middle-aged student now has the opportunity to push further than in his student days the questions: What is the meaning of life? What am I? What is God like?
Not everyone in India can go on to this stage. Members of the upper castes normally have a better chance to do so because of the more favorable economic conditions, which are theirs. People in Indian live in large family groups instead of in single-family units as Americans usually do. If one man leaves the large family compound, he is not missed as badly as he would be in a single-family plan. Even in America, some people retire from business after the children are married. In India, a man who retires does so not only from business but also from the usual daily activities of the householder or family stage. He has outgrown the need for the earlier kinds of amusement and activities. He wants to reflect, to study, and to meditate.
The Stage of Spiritual Pilgrim. There is a fourth stage that can be undertaken -- but few enter into it. If he feels ready to do so, a man may leave his hermitage, his village, and his group of congenial friends. Taking his staff and begging bowl, he wanders from place to place without cares or worries -- eating whatever comes his way through the grace of those dwelling in the villages through which he travels, lie helps the people by sharing his wisdom about the meaning of life or merely by his presence. He may live for a while as the tutor of a young student; but when he finishes the task, he wanders off again.
Westerners have frequently scorned this ideal. Yet, as Indians who know the story of Jesus point out, Jesus was demanding something like this of his own immediate followers. They were to give up everything -- including family obligations -- in order to follow him. To those who were ready for the step, he gave the invitation: leave everything. The search for meaning is more important than any institution -- even the family. The wandering Hindu pilgrim is expressing this conviction dramatically when he leaves every vestige of his former life, in full dedication to the attempt to understand the real self. The attempt may result in physical hardship and loneliness, but the Hindu pilgrim believes these to be unimportant, for the Atman lies beyond comfort and companionship.
Hinduism teaches us that we can find the real self-only if we search honestly. The search starts during our student days. It goes on through our family days and our retired days. The search does not involve giving up anything that is natural. One should not try to repress or suppress part of his life, his feelings, or his emotions. One should try to see all the desires, urges, and feelings for what they are.
Facing these honestly, a person discovers many things about himself. When he discovers what he himself is, he discovers what he is most capable of doing. Doing that with all of his heart just because he wants to do it, and doing it with love, he discovers that he is worshiping. To worship God is at the same time to find the real self and its meaning. These values are to be found only by the person who, with the honest desire to learn the answers to his basic questions, plans and lives his life for fulfilment of his highest goals.
5. HOW SHALL I WORSHIP?
The simple folk of Hindu India have listened for many centuries to the advice of their scholars and their wise men. They have heard the answers these learned ones gave to the questions about life and its meaning. And they have done their best to adopt the answers as their own. But there are many people in India, as elsewhere, who cannot make religion their main business. They must till the soil for food for their families and for other people -- for even priests must eat. There are some who must tend the shops, or else all commerce would cease. There are women, whom many men still consider to be incapable of gaining the knowledge that the wise philosophers considered essential.
What are these people to do? They wish to have happy lives. They wish to live at their best. Above all, they wish to free themselves of the endless chain of reincarnations, which, they fear, will keep them living life after life of work and worry. Is there some way that these people may come to know the Great Power within the universe, without having to spend all their days seeking? Is there some way they can live in accordance with the universal laws, without having to spend the money and the time to study with a wise teacher?
THE HELP OF GODS AND GODDESSES
To people like these, Brahman is difficult to understand. Brahman seems vast and remote. To these people the world seems much more friendly if they have a personal god "on their side." They want some god to pray to, to give gifts to, to honor in special ceremonies. They feel that such a god will help them to success in their material undertakings and in their spiritual lives. Because the wise men said that everything reflects Brahman, the people consider their god or goddess to be divine. And many of the people feel that a god like this is all of Brahman they need to know.
And so over the centuries, some personal gods have come to be very popular with the Hindu people. Of the Hindu trinity, Shiva (the destroyer-restorer god) and Vishnu (the savior god) are especially revered. (Vishnu is most often worshiped in one of his incarnated forms, Rama or Krishna.) Worshipers seek the aid of the wives of the gods, too. Some of the important goddesses are Durga, Lakshmi, Sita, and Radha. The most famous is Kali, the Mother Goddess of India. Many temples are built in her honor, and she is worshiped as the universal mother and feared as the foe of all sinful people.
There are many less-known deities to whom shrines are erected and to whom prayers and offerings arc given. Among these are animal gods, nature gods, and legendary heroes. A count of the gods worshiped in India would yield a figure of several hundreds. Each family chooses one god or goddess to worship in particular. While the members of the family may pray and give offerings to other gods, they never forget to pay daily reverence to the family god at the home shrine.
Such gods and goddesses seem closer to men than Brahman, for they are thought to understand human failings and human hopes. So a visitor to India sees images of various gods being fed and dressed and taken for walks. For all of these activities there are suitable rituals, hymns, and prayers. There is somewhere in Hinduism a deity that the humblest of men can comfortably worship.
In this way the masses of Hindu believers answer their questions about what the world is like and what the power behind it is. When they see a storm, they believe it to be the work of one of their gods. When they begin a new undertaking, they believe another of the gods will help them. To some, the world has almost "come alive" with gods and goddesses who can be loved or appeased.
What the average Hindu wants most is aid in his life’s pilgrimage. He believes that he can expect to go on living in one body after another until he learns enough about the true nature of himself and about life. And since he knows he cannot spend as much time as the sages and priests in meditation and study, he looks for short cuts to help him. He hopes to find ways that will give him special merit with the gods -- especially Kali, Vishnu, and Shiva. He believes that since the gods are reflections of the Supreme Spirit, Brahman, the person who so worships is truly helped.
A great number of short cuts have been developed by Hindu devotees. That is the reason travelers to India return with stories strange to our ears. They tell of people thronging to bathe in the River Ganges, the largest river there, and in other rivers and streams. Hindus come to the water because they believe it to be especially purifying; it will wash away some of their past sins and give them merit with the gods. Even the riverbanks are considered sacred. Some Hindus hope to gain ease for their consciences or a better position in their next lives by walking for great distances along the banks of some of the rivers.
The city of Benares is a sacred city to Hindus. They believe that a person who dies within a ten-mile radius of the city will have the mistakes of his previous lives forgotten by the gods. He may go for a stay of many years in one of the heavens of which Hindus speak. But after this "rest" from the plan of transmigration, he must return to earth to live out the lives necessary for him to gain complete self-knowledge and Brahman-knowledge.
Through centuries of search for merit, the Hindu believers have added other religious customs. The cow is treated as a holy animal, and prayers are addressed to it. Monkeys must never be harmed, for they, too, are sacred. Some plants are addressed with prayers. The wise men of India explain this by saying that the Atman is present in every living thing. Some nearby animal might be the present life of the Atman that used to be housed by a relative of yours in an earlier life.
Gandhi -- called by his compatriots the Mahatma or "Great Soul" -- said that cow-worship was the distinctive contribution of Hinduism to the world’s religious ideas. He explained that many religions teach love of man, but that Hinduism is the only one to teach such love of animals. Therefore, many devout Hindus never eat meat. Killing an animal for meat is wrong, they feel, for the animal has as much right to live as a man.
THREE WAYS TO WORSHIP
Many thoughtful members of the Hindu faith do not believe that all the worship of the common people is effective. They are as critical as many travelers to India, who say that some of the religious practices are absurd and unintelligent. These thoughtful Hindus regard some of the popular religious practices as sheer superstition. They believe that there are three ways to live a good life. One is the way of good deeds. One is the very important way of knowledge about reality. The third is the way of complete devotion.
Good deeds can be performed by everyone. The poorest member of the lowest caste can do as many good deeds as the well-kept priest in the richest temple in the land. To Hindus, part of doing good deeds is to perform your duty to the best of your ability. There is a place for everyone in this life, and the place that is yours can be filled only by you. Fill it well -- and on your way through this world stop often to help the people and animals.
The only happiness deserving the name comes from knowledge of reality -- the supreme goal of every Hindu. To this end, men leave their families and go to the forest to study and meditate. Some give up all earthly ties -- even to having a funeral service for them -- to wander about the countryside seeking truth. Some men study Yoga, a system of training for meditation. These men practice breathing and posture exercises untiringly (much more diligently than our football, basketball, or track stars in training). When they have gained the ability to be totally unaware of themselves as persons, they are ready to know the Atman.
The easiest way to live the good life is to love all living things and to love the gods. Living the life of unselfish love, one becomes completely devoted to the gods. "Love of men leads to love of God," Hindus say. Some try to intensify their love by looking upon a chosen god in each of these successive roles: parent, master, friend, child, mate, or sweetheart. If such devotional activity brings the worshiper nearer his own true nature, it brings him nearer Brahman. There are some Hindus who feel that during their lives they attain the maturity to worship Brahman directly. But usually the worship of love is exercised on one of the personal gods.
One of the most interesting Hindus of recent times was the man called Ramakrishna. He worshiped after the manner of all three paths. Of himself he declared, "He who was Rama and Krishna is now Ramakrishna." He is considered an incarnation of the supreme lord Vishnu, along with these other two very popular divine descents. When he was just a young man, Ramakrishna was admonished by his brother for not studying more diligently in order to earn his living as a priest. Ramakrishna replied: "And what shall I do with a mere bread-winning education? I would rather acquire that wisdom which will illumine my heart arid give me satisfaction forever."
When he was established in a temple supported by a sympathetic, rich widow, Ramakrishna proceeded to live the most devoted kind of life he knew. He became a devotee of Kali, the Divine Mother, represented in Hindu folklore as the wife of the god Shiva. He went beyond all the usual rituals and ceremonials, to make of his life a constant and intense expression of his religious ardor.
He began to think it important to reach the religious goals that all the sects of Hinduism looked upon as important. He worshiped through the methods of Yoga exercises of self-control, through finding the deepest meanings in pleasure, through renunciation of all material and pleasing things, and through intense and blissful love of Krishna. He took up each method in turn and kept practicing it until he had successfully achieved union of Atman with Brahman.
When this was over, his zeal carried him on to attempts to reap the spiritual values of other religions. He became in turn a Buddhist, a Moslem, and a Christian. From that experience, he became convinced that the goal of all religions was the same. An order of monks named .after Ramakrishna is active in India and in other parts of the world, including the United States. He is remembered for his belief in the unity of all religions and for his stress on the importance of the spiritual search.
A HINDU WHO WORSHIPED THROUGH GOOD DEEDS
Recently the eyes of Hindus have turned increasingly toward the outer world. India has begun to assert its rightful place as an important nation. This movement was helped a great deal by the efforts and the life of one very devoted Hindu, Gandhi. Before his assassination in 1948, a large part of the world had begun to look to Mahatma Gandhi for guidance in applying religious principles to political situations. For much of his life, he had been engaged in a struggle to better the conditions of the Indian people. He gained much for the nation through fasting, prayer, and conference, rather than through propaganda, terrorism, and armed rebellion. When his death came, it was at the hands of a radical Hindu, who could not bear Gandhi’s insistence that violence not be used against the Moslems living in India.
It was a religious motivation that made his life a compelling example to millions of his fellow Hindus and the center of attention for masses of people all over the world. Gandhi felt that for him the best kind of life as the life of good deeds. \When he was thirty-four years old, he undertook the vows of purity and poverty, lie dedicated himself to the service of his fellow men. Henceforth no work was too lowly for him to do. Although he had been a member of the merchant caste, he left all caste distinctions behind.
This saintly statesman had a dream toward which he tried to help the world move. The ideal world, he thought, would be achieved by peaceful means, not by war. All religions and all communities and all peoples would have equal privileges. Gandhi insisted on truth and non-violence in every sphere of life. In his insistence, he focused the white light of truth on the inequalities of the caste system and upon untouchability, which he considered to be blight upon the face of modern India.
He came to feel that the Indian people were being deprived of their rights to their unique culture, and so he initiated the movement, which finally led to independence from British rule. The changes he effected were nude through the medium of his ascetic habits: his fasts and penances and his renunciation of material comforts. He indeed ceased to live for himself and lived for truth and non-violence.
Gandhi raised so effective a voice for his people that probably some of his writings will someday be included among India’s sacred literature, he is already being described by his followers as a savior of his people -- an avatar. Of himself, he said simply, I am a man of peace."
THE INFLUENCE OF HINDUISM
For a time we have been looking at the Hinduism that people can see: the gods and goddesses, the images and idols, the temples and sacred places, the rituals and the offerings. We have paused to look at Ramakrishna and Gandhi, two spiritual giants who helped to turn the attention of others to the necessity of living religiously. Thereby the two bettered their religion and their country. Wherever a religion makes a real difference in the lives of people, it becomes a truly magnificent force. Hinduism is such a force. One of the oldest religions in the world -- some say the oldest -- Hinduism has for centuries helped people to find answers to their deepest questions.
What am I really? In your inner self, replies the Hindu, you are part of God.
What is my life? The Hindu answers that it is a search of whatever length necessary to find God in yourself.
How can I be happy? Only by coming to know God, replies the Hindu.
How can I know God? "He who knows himself will know God."
Which way of worship is best? Hindus have said: "Cattle are of different colors, but all milk is alike; ... systems of faith are different, but God is one."
Sincere thanks to Venerable
Thich Tam Quang for making this digital version available.
(Bình Anson, 05-2004)
last updated: 26-05-2004