HINDUISM, KARMA, REINCARNATION AND LIFE

HINDU LOVE OF LIFE AND EXISTENCE


Rama with a squirrel

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: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; Heart of Hinduism (Hare Krishna Movement) iskconeducationalservices.org ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, York University iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource ; Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission .wikisource.org ; All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda dlshq.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Hindu Beliefs

Hindus believe in four purushartha (aims of the living, or instrumental and ultimate goals): 1) artha (material prosperity); 2) kama (satisfaction of legitimate desires); 3) dharma (moral conduct and duties associated with one’s station in life); and 4) moksha (obtaining release from the cycle of deaths and rebirths). These aims are thought to apply to everyone, regardless of caste, from Brahmin to Untouchables.

20120501-Cow_on_Delhi_street.jpg 1) Most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. 2) Hindus believe that existence is a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, governed by Karma. 3) Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived. [Source: BBC]

Hindus talk about the impermanence of relationships in the material world. In the Bhagavad Gita it is written that “the company of people who don’t believe in seeking eternal truth is bad company.” According to the Hindu view, there are four goals of life on earth, and each human being should aspire to all four. Everyone should aim: 1) for dharma, or righteous living; 2) artha, or wealth acquired through the pursuit of a profession; 3) kama, or human and sexual love; and, 4) finally, moksha, or spiritual salvation. Tripura Rahasya, 18: 89 reads: “Second-hand knowledge of the self gathered from books or gurus can never emancipate a man until its truth is rightly investigated and applied; only direct realisation will do that. Realise yourself, turning the mind inward.” [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Vedanta, the basis of Hinduism, states that the individual human soul (atman) originates and merges with the Brahman (the all-in-one 'impersonal' God and the universal soul) . There are three different philosophies on this concept. 1) Advaita (non-duality), which implies that there is an identity of Brahman and atman; 2) Dvaita (duality), which maintains that Brahman and Jatman are united; and 3) Visistadvaita (qualified non-duality), which maintains Brahman and Jatman are fundamental united but have crucial differentiations. These view were were promoted by Sri Adi Shankara, Sri Ramanuja and Sri Madhva. Among other concepts which are not as widely embraced but still followed by some Hindus are dvaitadvaita (dual-non-dual doctrine), suddhadvaita (pure non-dualism), and acinntyaa bhedabheda (oneness and difference). These were promulgated by Nimbarka, Vallabha and Vidyabhusana. All the above philosophers have written commentaries on the prasthana-traya (triple canon) of the vedanta, which are the Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and Bhagavad Gita.

Flexibility of Hindu Beliefs


Vishnu Avatars

Many Hindus view life, existence and cosmology as too complicated to be followed a simple creed. It is therefore up to an individual or group to pick the aspects of the religion that they feel applies to them. According to the advaita philosophy the world and everything in it is an illusion and is one. There is only one divine principle in Hinduism and all the different gods are manifestations of this cosmic unity. Hindus often say, "We believe God is everywhere...We believe God is you, too." The only essential truth and desire is the one that is possessed within. Other things found in life are generally distortions and untruths.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “From its beginnings, Hinduism has possessed a remarkable ability to assimilate rather than reject new ideas. It has developed complex overlays of beliefs, cults, gods, and forms of worship. Hindus recognize no single founder or prophet. There is no single holy book similar to the Bible or Qur’an; the religion is not supervised and interpreted by a hierarchy of priests, and its great texts were not inscribed but handed down as an oral tradition. Hindu worship is based on a one-to-one relationship between devotee and god rather than being congregational. This practice intensified beginning in the seventh century with the popularity of bhakti, passionate personal devotion to an individual god or goddess. Over the centuries, a number of important poets and musician-saints emerged from the bhakti tradition whose works, such as the Gita Govinda, became classics of Indian culture.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Hindu beliefs and scriptures are less monolithic and more diverse than Islam and Christianity and often yield contradictory arguments. On the issue of when life begins, Pankaj Mishra wrote in the New York Times, “The ancient system of Indian medicine known as Ayurveda assumes that fetuses are alive and conscious when it prescribes a particular mental and spiritual regimen to pregnant women. This same assumption is implicit in "The Mahabharata," the Hindu epic about a fratricidal war apparently fought in the first millennium B.C. In one of its famous stories, the warrior Arjuna describes to his pregnant wife a seven-stage military strategy. His yet-to-born son Abhimanyu is listening, too. But as Arjuna describes the seventh and last stage, his wife falls asleep, presumably out of boredom. Years later, while fighting his father's cousins, the hundred Kaurava brothers, Abhimanyu uses well the military training he has learned in his mother's womb, until the seventh stage, where he falters and is killed.” However, Early in "The Mahabharata," there is a story about how the hundred Kaurava brothers came into being. Their mother had produced a mass of flesh after two years of pregnancy. But then a sage divided the flesh into 100 parts, which were treated with herbs and ghee, and kept in pots for two years -- from which the Kaurava brothers emerged.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, New York Times, August 21, 2005]

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.

Atman

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]

Gavin Flood, a professor of Theology at Oxford, wrote in a BBC article: “Atman means 'eternal self'. The atman refers to the real self beyond ego or false self. It is often referred to as 'spirit' or 'soul' and indicates our true self or essence which underlies our existence. There are many interesting perspectives on the self in Hinduism ranging from the self as eternal servant of God to the self as being identified with God. The understanding of the self as eternal supports the idea of reincarnation in that the same eternal being can inhabit temporary bodies. [Source: Professor Gavin Flood, BBC, August 24, 2009 |::|]

“The idea of atman entails the idea of the self as a spiritual rather than material being and thus there is a strong dimension of Hinduism which emphasises detachment from the material world and promotes practices such as asceticism. Thus it could be said that in this world, a spiritual being, the atman, has a human experience rather than a human being having a spiritual experience.” |::|

Hindu Beliefs About Reincarnation


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 the BBC: “Hindus believe that the soul passes through a cycle of successive lives (samsara) and its next incarnation is always dependent on how the previous life was lived (karma). In a lifetime people build up karma, both good and bad, based on their actions within that lifetime. This karma affects their future lives and existences. People must take responsibility for their actions either within this life time or the next. Death is a key part of this cycle and is treated with specific importance. Death is the last samsara (cycle of life) referred to as the 'last sacrifice'.” [Source: BBC]

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

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]

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

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.”

20120501-Yanta Madhubani Mahavidyas.jpg
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.

Ashrama: 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).

According to the BBC: "The ashrama system is as follows: 1) Brahmacarya - 'celibate student' stage in which males learned the Veda; 2) grihastha - 'householder' in which the twice born male can experience the human purposes (purushartha) of responsibility, wealth, and sexual pleasure; 3) Vanaprastha - 'hermit' or 'wilderness dweller' in which the twice born male retires from life in the world to take up pilgrimage and religious observances along with his wife; and 4) Samnyasa - 'renunciation' in which the twice born gives up the world, takes on a saffron robe or, in some sects, goes naked, with a bowl and a staff to seek moksha (liberation) or develop devotion." [Source: BBC]

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.

Purushartha

Professor Flood of Oxford University wrote: “Hinduism developed a doctrine that life has different goals according to a person's stage of life and position. These goals became codified in the 'goals of a person' or 'human goals', the purusharthas, especially in sacred texts about dharma called 'dharma shastras' of which the 'Laws of Manu' is the most famous. In these texts three goals of life are expressed, namely virtuous living or dharma, profit or worldly success, and pleasure, especially sexual pleasure as a married householder and more broadly aesthetic pleasure. A fourth goal of liberation (moksha) was added at a later date. The purusharthas express an understanding of human nature, that people have different desires and purposes which are all legitimate in their context. [Source: Prof. Gavin Flood, BBC |::|]

“Over the centuries there has been discussion about which goal was most important. Towards the end of the Mahabharata (Shantiparvan 12.167) there is a discussion about the relative importance of the three goals of dharma, profit and pleasure between the Pandava brothers and the wise sage Vidura. Vidura claims that dharma is most important because through it the sages enter the absolute reality, on dharma the universe rests, and through dharma wealth is acquired. One of the brothers, Arjuna, disagrees, claiming that dharma and pleasure rest on profit. Another brother, Bhima, argues for pleasure or desire being the most important goal, as only through desire have the sages attained liberation. This discussion recognises the complexity and varied nature of human purposes and meanings in life.” |::|

Hindu Merit and Penitence

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rolling babas
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.”

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.

Penitence, See Sadhus, Holy Men

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.

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.

Last updated September 2018

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