HINDUISM, KARMA, REINCARNATION, LIFE AND MORALITY

HINDU LOVE OF LIFE AND EXISTENCE

20120501-Cow_on_Delhi_street.jpg Hindus believe that all living creatures---from bacteria to blue whales, and even some plants---have souls, which are essentially equal, and all these life forms are manifestations of the unity of the universe. This is why Hindus are vegetarians and abhor killing animals; and ahimsa , the belief that it is a sin to harm any living creature, is an important precept in Hinduism. The concept was eluded to in the Upanishads and contrasts sharply with doctrines of Western religions which holds that mankind is a special creation on a plane higher than other creatures.

Life and death are seen as meaningless cycles. Life itself is often characterized as a dream that has little to with relevance of the true nature of things in terms of the universe, cosmology and forces behind life. Reality is like an onion whose successive layers have to be pealed to reveal the universe eternal truth. On this subject Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:

Do not say
“God gave us this delusion.”
You dream you are a doer.
You dream that action is done.
You dream that action bears fruit.
It is your ignorance.
It is your delusion
That gives these dreams.

Hindus believe in Paramatman (the eternal, blissful self), which contradicts the Buddhist belief in the impermanent and transitory nature of things.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures

Hinduism, Reincarnation and Transmigration

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Gandhi cremation
Reincarnation is the transmigration of the soul from one life form to another. It doesn’t just apply to humans but to all creatures and some non-living things too. Transmigration of the soul can take place from a human or creature into another human or creature up or down a scale based on good and evil deeds (See Karma Below). If a person has lived a virtuous life he moves up the scale, say, from a low caste to a high caste. If a person has lived an unworthy life he moves down the scale, say, from a low caste to a rat.

Reincarnation is a belief found in most Asian religions and is a cornerstone of all the major religions found in India except Islam. The Hindu idea of reincarnation is roughly the same regardless of which Hindu god an individual venerates most.

The Hindu concept of reincarnation first appeared in the Upanishads and is believed to have originated in the Ganges Plain and was absorbed b the Aryan-centered Hinduism as the Aryans moved into the Ganges Plain. Beliefs in reincarnation are not just found in India and Asia but are found in tribal cultures all over the world and were held by the ancient Greeks, Vikings and other groups in the West. Ideas about reincarnation are probably very old and were held by people who lived in Neolithic times.

Hindu Beliefs About Reincarnation

The Upanishads, originating as commentaries on the Vedas between about 800 and 200 B.C., contain speculations on the meaning of existence that have greatly influenced Indian religious traditions. Most important is the concept of atman (the human soul), which is an individual manifestation of brahman . Atman is of the same nature as brahman , characterized either as an impersonal force or as God, and has as its goal the recognition of identity with brahman . This fusion is not possible, however, as long as the individual remains bound to the world of the flesh and desires. In fact, the deathless atman that is so bound will not join with brahman after the death of the body but will experience continuous rebirth. This fundamental concept of the transmigration of atman , or reincarnation after death, lies at the heart of the religions emerging from India. [Source: Library of Congress]


Hierarchy of Beings according to Jain Thought
but also applicable to Hindu, Buddhist Thought
Reincarnation is viewed as a never-ending set of cycles ( yugas and kalpas ). One may be reincarnated millions of times. The doctrine that the soul repeatedly dies and is reborn is called samsara (Sanskrit for migration). Karma determines what a person is reincarnated as. Escape from the weary cycle of reincarnation can be achieved through escape into “an unchanging anonymous Absolute" and attaining moksha , the Hindu equivalent or nirvana . For More on These Ideas See Below.

According to Hindu theology an atman (an internal self or soul) dwells in each person as a kind of cosmic energy that exists beyond worldly reality and karma and doesn’t require good deeds or prayers to improve on itself. The problem is that few creatures can tune into their atman and thus require deeds and prayer to help them establish their place in the world Reincarnation helps them do this and evolve to reach closer to their atman.

The cycles of birth and death are perceived a continuations of the disintegrating force of Creation while transmigration of the soul from one life to another is viewed a perpetuation of the separation of the individual from the unifying force of existence. The aim of the individual is to "get off the wheel," to escape the cycle and merge finally with the Oneness that was there before Creation began. into the original One. Methods used on the path of escaping reincarnation include yoga, meditation, and charity. Since the chances of escaping it are quite low people are encouraged to work to achieve a better position in their next life by doing good deeds, living simply and praying a lot.

Behavior at the end of one’s life and last thought before dying are believed to be very important in determining how an individual will be reincarnated. Thus a great deal of care goes into making sure a person is well cared before they die and after. This is achieved by creating a calm atmosphere and reading Vedic scriptures and reciting mantras so the soon-to-be-dead can earn as much merit as possible.

Karma

Karma is the means in which a person controls his or her destiny through good or evil deeds. Defined by some scholars as “the whole ethical consequences of one’s actions,” it is a moral force that survives death, determines one’s existence in future lives and has defined existence in past lives.

Karma is a Sanskrit word that means "work" or "action” and the “result of a work or action.” It describes a "reap what you sow" and the “cause and effect” doctrine in which good actions will be rewarded and bad actions will be punished on both universal and individual levels and influence one’s reincarnation. The emphasis in karma beliefs is not based on punishment for bad deeds but rather on improving one's karma by learning from one's mistakes and performing pure deeds, praying, mediating and taking actions to purify oneself.

The concepts of reincarnation, caste and karma are linked, with karma being carried over from one life to the next, determining the life or caste of a person in their next life. Based on whether their karma is generally good or bad, people are reborn in higher or lower castes. Some sinners come back as animals that befits their crimes. A meat stealer may come back as a jackal, a grain thief as a rat. The worst sinners are condemned to the lowest hells where they are eaten by birds or cooked in pots.

Indian religious tradition sees karma as the source of the problem of transmigration. While associated with physical form, for example, in a human body, beings experience the universe through their senses and their minds and attach themselves to the people and things around them and constantly lose sight of their true existence as atman , which is of the same nature as brahman . As the time comes for the dropping of the body, the fruits of good and evil actions in the past remain with atman , clinging to it, causing a tendency to continue experience in other existences after death. Good deeds in this life may lead to a happy rebirth in a better life, and evil deeds may lead to a lower existence, but eventually the consequences of past deeds will be worked out, and the individual will seek more experiences in a physical world. In this manner, the bound or ignorant atman wanders from life to life, in heavens and hells and in many different bodies. The universe may expand and be destroyed numerous times, but the bound atman will not achieve release. [Source: Library of Congress]

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Yoga, Gurus and Achieving Moksha

The true goal of atman is liberation, or release (moksha ), from the limited world of experience and realization of oneness with God or the cosmos. In order to achieve release, the individual must pursue a kind of discipline (yoga, a "tying," related to the English word yoke) that is appropriate to one's abilities and station in life. For most people, this goal means a course of action that keeps them rather closely tied to the world and its ways, including the enjoyment of love (kama ), the attainment of wealth and power (artha ), and the following of socially acceptable ethical principles (dharma).

From this perspective, even manuals on sexual love, such as the Kama Sutra (Book of Love), or collections of ideas on politics and governance, such as the Arthashastra (Science of Material Gain), are part of a religious tradition that values action in the world as long as it is performed with understanding, a karma-yoga or selfless discipline of action in which every action is offered as a sacrifice to God. Some people, however, may be interested in breaking the cycle of rebirth in this life or soon thereafter. For them, a wide range of techniques has evolved over the thousands of years that gives Indian religion its great diversity. The discipline that involves physical positioning of the body (hatha-yoga), which is most commonly equated with yoga outside of India, sees the human body as a series of spiritual centers that can be awakened through meditation and exercise, leading eventually to a oneness with the universe. Tantrism is the belief in the Tantra (from the Sanskrit, context or continuum), a collection of texts that stress the usefulness of rituals, carried out with a strict discipline, as a means for attaining understanding and spiritual awakening. These rituals include chanting powerful mantras; meditating on complicated or auspicious diagrams (mandalas); and, for one school of advanced practitioners, deliberately violating social norms on food, drink, and sexual relations. *

A central aspect of all religious discipline, regardless of its emphasis, is the importance of the guru, or teacher. Indian religion may accept the sacredness of specific texts and rituals but stresses interpretation by a living practitioner who has personal experience of liberation and can pass down successful techniques to devoted followers. In fact, since Vedic times, it has never been possible, and has rarely been desired, to unite all people in India under one concept of orthodoxy with a single authority that could be presented to everyone. Instead, there has been a tendency to accept religious innovation and diversity as the natural result of personal experience by successive generations of gurus, who have tailored their messages to particular times, places, and peoples, and then passed down their knowledge to lines of disciples and social groups. As a result, Indian religion is a mass of ancient and modern traditions, some always preserved and some constantly changing, and the individual is relatively free to stress in his or her life the beliefs and religious behaviors that seem most effective on the path to deliverance. *

Karma, Character and Behavior

Hinduism teaches one to accept the injustices of life and be patient for rewards that may not materialize until their next life. High positions are not earned and low positions must be accepted. Some scholars have argued that beliefs in transmigration and karma originated as a way to explain social and economic discrepancies, to create an incentive to act morally and to offer people who were dealt a bad set of cards some hope in the future, in their next life.

It has also been argued that beliefs of karma and reincarnation encourage passivity with Hindus accepting their often miserable fate and taking little initiative to improve their lives or get rid of the poverty and misery around them. The beliefs also produce a resigned inshallah approach to life--- with victims of bad events chalking up the events to bad karma, and in some cases even feeling relieved because they feel their bad karma has been used up and better things will happen in the future.

Parkish Louis, of the Indian Social Institute, a Delhi think tank, told the Financial Times, "People have been for centuries oppressed, passive, paralyzed and marginalized by beliefs of karma and destiny. People are accepting their misery in the name of religion and beliefs.” This attitude is also said to encourage irresponsibility and make people more accepting of corruption than they otherwise would be.

The Soul, Death and Afterlife in Hinduism

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There is little mourning when a Hindu dies because they believe that once a person is born he or she never dies. Krishna said in the Bhagavad-Gita that "Worn-out garments are shed by the body: worn-out bodies are shed by the dweller within...New bodies are donned by the dweller, like garments.” Death is often viewed in a positive light: as an escape from one life on the road to a better an ultimate moksha (nirvana), shanti (peace) and paramapada (the ultimate place).

Atman (the self or spiritual soul) is seen as a kernel that lies at the center of a large onion and is only revealed after the layers around it---associated with the body, passions and mental powers---are removed in a step by step fashion. The Taittiriya Upanishad defines five layers or sheaths (from the outer to the kernel): 1) the body 2) bio-energy, the equivalent of Chinese qi; 3) mental energy; 4) intuition and wisdom; 5) pure bliss achieved mainly through meditation. These layers can be removed through self actualization and the kernel of eternal bliss can ultimately be realized.

On the subject of death one passage in the Rig Veda reads:
When he goes on the path that lead away the breath of life.
Then he will be led by the will of the gods
May your eye go to the sun, you life’s breath to the wind
Go to the sky or the earth, as is your nature.

The Vedas refer to two paths taken after death: 1) the path of the ancestors, where the deceased travels to a heaven occupied by ancestors and is ultimately reborn; 2) the path of gods, where the deceased enters a realm at the sun and never returns. The latter is the equivalent of reaching nirvana and escaping reincarnation. There is also a reference to a hell-like “pit” where sinners are punished.

At death the sheaths break apart one by one, and go their separate ways revealing the atman, which departs the body and goes on a path defined by an individual’s karma. In most cases the individual goes to a niche in the cosmos occupied by his ancestors or to one of the 21 heavens and hells of Hindu cosmology and remains there for duration defined by their karma until he or she is ready to be reborn.

Moksha

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Moksha is the Hindu equivalent of nirvana . It means “release” or “liberation” and refers to the release from the cycle of deaths and rebirths and merging of the personal self with the cosmic self. In the Vedas, there are references to sages experiencing eternal bliss but little is said on how they achieved it or what it was like. The Upanishads describes the path to moksha as a quest “from the unreal....to the real; from the darkness...to light; from death...to immorality.” One who attains moksha is called a jivam-mukta , or freed soul. After death “he goes to light [traveling] from the sun to the moon from the moon to lightning...This is the path of the gods...Those that proceed on this path do not return to the life.”

Moksha is something that has to occur in natural rather than deliberate way. It can only be attained when all desire and attachment, including the desire for moksha have been overcome. Descriptions of it tend to be focused more on achieving it than what it is like.

The Bhagavad Gita reads: “The man who has reached perfection attains the Supreme Being, which is the end, the aim, and the highest condition of spiritual knowledge...Imbued with pure discrimination, restraining himself with resolution, having rejected the charms of sound and other objects of the senses, and casting off attachment and dislike; dwelling in secluded places, eating little, with speech, body and mind controlled, engaging in constant meditation and unwaveringly fixed in dispassion, abandoning egotism, arrogance, violence, vanity, desire, anger, pride, and possession, with calmness, ever present, a man is fitted to be the Supreme Being. And having thus attained the Supreme Being, he is serving sorrow no more, and no more desiring but alike towards all creatures he attains to supreme devotion.”

Moksha is obtained through the acquisition of knowledge and by overcoming ignorance . The three main ways to obtain moksha are known as marga . They are 1) jnana , the way of knowledge; 2) bhakti , the way of devotion; and 3) karma , the way of action. There are many sects, guides, teachers and gurus that provide assistance on the path to moksha. Yoga is among the methods that modern Hindus turn to in their quest for it (See Yoga). Moksha is not an easy thing to attain. It can thousands even millions of lifetimes to achieve.

Hindu Stages of Life

Hindus believe in four stages of life ( ashrama ): 1) brahmacarin (life of student); 2) grhastha (becoming a householder, which includes marriage, having children and working); 3) vanaprastha (retiring to the forest to become a hermit and meditate); and 4) sannyasi (becoming a mendicant that renounces worldly possessions and wanders the countryside begging).

These apply mostly to men. Inherent to the stage of the householder is the belief that the pursuit of money, power, fame and glory are all legitimate pursuits as long as they don’t harm others. The pursuit of religious enlightenment is something that takes place after one’s family is provided for. The last two stages place an emphasis on gaining merit before death to improve one’s karma and gain a better position through reincarnation.

Hindu Philosophical Concepts

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sadhu, one of the
Hindu stages of life
Hinduism also has a deeply philosophical side. Many scholars suggest that philosophical inquiry and speculation began in India before its did anywhere else, even ancient Greece. The Hindu philosophy of the Upanishad period is particularly rich. Perhaps one reason this is so is that Hinduism has traditionally been tolerant of and absorbed so many different---and sometimes conflicting---ideas and beliefs and organized them into elastic networks that allows these ideas to coexist and have a vehicle for expression.

The primary theme of much of Hindu philosophy is rising above the cycle of reincarnation and getting close to the Supreme Being. Before the Christian era Six Darshanas (schools of thought) were created to offer different methods to address these themes: 1) Nyaya (logic and analysis); 2) Vaishenshika (nature consisting of atoms distinct from the soul); 3) Sankya (the reality and duality of matter and soul): 4) yoga (moral control through physical postures); 5) mimmsa (sacrificialism); and 6) Vedanta (the idea that the world is an illusion that detracts from gaining absolute knowledge). The latter is alive and well. The other five are largely extinct.

See Life and Existence, Hindu Concept of Self

The most famous Hindu thinker is Sankara, an A.D. 9th century Brahmin from Kerala who was able to harmonize and provide a framework for Hindu thought and make sense of its apparent contradictions. He argued that salivation was in the hands of the individual and emphasized meditation as a way of achieving it. Ramanuju, a 12th century Tamil Brahmin thinker, is also regarded a great Hindu theistic philosopher. He argued that devotion was the best path to eternal bliss and that salvation was awarded by the grace of God. Ramananda, who taught in Varanasi in the 15th century, and his student Kabir, were opposed to the caste system and tried ro reform Hinduism.

Hindu Merit and Penitence

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The idea of merit get more attention in Buddhism than Hinduism but is still important in Hinduism. It is linked with karma. Merit is sort of like brownie points that helps one ascend to higher reincarnation levels and eventually reach the state of enlightenment. Earning merit is essentially the same thing as earning good karma and has been described as a “spiritual bank account” in which “doing bad things are withdrawals; making merit is a deposit.”

Penitence, See Sadhus, Holy Men

Extreme forms of penitence are central parts of Thaipusam, a festival celebrated at Batu Caves outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Devotees carry kavadis (large, colorful steel frames) supported on spikes, spears and hooks that pierce their flesh and skin. The devotees wear the kavadis to fulfill thanksgiving vows for having had their prayers answered the previous year. The participants fast and abstain from sex and alcohol for a month before the ritual so they are pure. Apples, fruit and coconuts and other objects carried on the kavadis are presented at Lord Subramaniam's shrine. Devotees also saw and place spikes through their tongue and make quarter-size holes in their cheeks with lances and stick a poles though them. Cheek piercing with sharpened metal rods is part of prayer ceremonies held in the Punjabi city of Ludhiana.

Some women have the word Rama written over and over again across their saris and cloaks. Women of the Namdhari sect even tattoo Sanskrit lines of the word across their face.

Hindu Miracles

Hindus have traditionally regarded miracles as forms of play used by the Gods to amuse themselves. Kenneth Woodward wrote in Newsweek: “For more than three millenniums, India has been a land of living saints. It is also a land of nearly countless local gods and goddesses--some 3 million of them, by one recent estimate. All gods, however, are but different forms of a single Absolute (Brahman) which is also the ground (Atman) of everyone who exists. Just as Hindu gods can descend in human form, so the Hindu saint can achieve god-like consciousness. Thus, through rigorous meditation and other yogic practices, the practitioner can decant his bottled divinity. Given this view, the line between human and divine is not as distinct as in the West. [Source: Kenneth Woodward, Newsweek, April 30, 2000]

“Maharaj Krishna Rasgotra, a retired foreign secretary of India, remembers the precise day almost 30 years ago when he became a devotee of Saty Sai Baba, India's most celebrated living saint. Over the years, the government official often witnessed Baba work his signature miracle--producing out of air mounds of vibhuti, sacred ash that his devotees credit with healing properties. But it was in 1986 that Rasgotra experienced Baba's power firsthand. After suffering a heart attack, Rasgotra lay in a hospital recovery room. Among the hovering doctors and nurses he saw Baba, though the saint was a thousand miles away. When physicians told him he needed bypass surgery to avoid a fatal attack, Rasgotra consulted Baba in person, who told him he didn't need it. Rasgotra skipped surgery and today, at 75, he plays 18 holes of golf regularly. "I have total faith in Baba," says Rasgotra. "Whatever he says comes about. Whenever you are with him you feel you're shedding something and acquiring a new kind of life.

Dharma and Morality

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Swami Nigamananda
Dharma is an important concept in Hinduism but is difficult to define. Some translate it as meaning “universal justice” or “natural law” but is best viewed as doing what is required based on one's position and stage in life. Other important moral concepts found in Hinduism include: 1) prarabdha (fate); 2) anugraha (divine grace); and 3) papa (moral evil).

Dharma is basically a code of moral conduct and duties and is regarded as one of the most important truths sought by individuals in their lifetime. It is linked with righteousness and responsibility and is sometimes viewed as living in accordance with one’s caste traditions. Among Buddhists dharma it the ultimate reality, the eternal truth to which Buddha was "awakened."

Adharma is behavior that is opposed to one’s dharma. Adharma and dharma are somewhat like yin and yang in that they oppose one another but are also complimentary and they way they oppose each other is relative. Good and evil, right and wrong and truth and falsehood are can all be viewed in terms of dharma and adharma but are relative to an individual and his or her position in life.

The great Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata give a lot of attention to dharma and adharma. See Concepts in the Bhagavad Gita

The concept of purity is important. Hindus believed that purification of the body leads to purification of the mind and ones position in the world (or caste) is determined by the purity or impurity of past deeds ( karma ). The five polluting pancamakra are: 1) wine; 2) meat; 3) fish; 4) parched grain; and 5) sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman. The idea of purity is at the heart of the caste system. See Caste System.

Hinduism and Character

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Some argue Hinduism encourages tolerance and open-mindedness. There is no right way or wrong way to practice Hinduism; no correct code of ethics or values; no proselytizing.

Children are brought up to follow the customs and ethics of their parents but are encouraged to decide for themselves which gods and goddesses are right for them. Individuals often practice group rituals for their family and private rituals for themselves.

It has been said that Hinduism encourages fatalistic pacificism and that holiness is often equated with passivity and renunciation. See Karma

See Karma, Character and Behavior

See Caste System

Hinduism and Materialism

Hinduism has traditionally frowned upon the accumulation of material wealth. The "comforts" of the body do not necessarily promise peace of mind. Eternal bliss holy men say is achieved through by "controlling your desires and imposing self-discipline."

Renouncing materialism is something that has traditionally been associated with old age and holy men not working men caring for his wife and children. In keeping with Hindu beliefs about the stages of life a man with a family "cannot hope to realize all his spiritual capabilities until his responsibilities are over and he can leave the world."

Inherent to the stage of the householder (a man with a family) is the belief that the pursuit of money, power, fame and glory are all legitimate pursuits as long as they don’t harm others. The pursuit of religious enlightenment is something that takes place after one’s family is provided for. The last two stages of life place an emphasis on gaining merit before death to improve one’s karma and gain a better position through reincarnation.

The best time to renounce material concerns says a Hindu treatise is "when a householder sees his skin wrinkled, and his hair white, and the sons of his sons, then he may resort to the forest...he should live without fire, without a house, a silent sage subsisting on roots and fruit.”

See Sadhus

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Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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