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Hindu religious thought is based upon the belief in the Ultimate Reality (Brahman of the Upanishads), faith in the reality of the spirit (ãtman), and faith in the spiritual order of the world. Through their spiritual experiences, the ancient rishis (sages) discovered that there are different ways to approach the same goal, catering to different people exhibiting different levels of spiritual development. Enormous diversity is thus an essential feature of the religious life of Hindus.
Hindu View of God
Hindu view of the Ultimate Reality is expressed in the following revelation of the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture:
This doctrine recognizes that the Ultimate Reality possesses infinite potential, power and intelligence, and therefore cannot be limited by a single name or form. Thus, Hindus view the Ultimate Reality as having two aspects: impersonal and personal (see Figure 1). The impersonal aspect of the Ultimate Reality is called Nirguna Brahman in Hindu scriptures. Nirguna Brahman has no attributes and, as such, is not an object of prayer, but of meditation and knowledge. This aspect of the Ultimate Reality is beyond conception, beyond reasoning and beyond thought.
The personal aspect of the Ultimate Reality is known as Saguna Brahman, that is Brahman with attributes. Saguna Brahman is the creator, sustainer and controller of the universe. Saguna Brahman cannot be limited by one form and is therefore worshipped by Hindus in both male and female forms. As the male aspect, Saguna Brahman is called by various Sanskrit names, such as Ishvara, Parameshvara, Paramãtma, Maheshvara, and Purusha. These Sanskrit names repre-sent more or less the same concept as the word God in other religions.
As the female aspect, Hindus refer to Saguna Brahman by various names, such as Divine Mother, Durgã and Kãlî. Hindus further worship the male and female aspects of Saguna Brahman in many forms, called deities. Refer to Chapter 3 for an understanding of the significance of deity worship.
Hindu View of the Individual
Hindu scriptures teach that an individual is essentially ãtman clothed in a physical body. The Sanskrit word ãtman, meaning "God within," is usually translated as soul, self, or spirit. If the physical body of an individual were compared to a computer, the ãtman would represent the electricity that operates the computer. Thus, without ãtman, the human body is insentient. In a human body ãtman is the source of the mind, intellect and ego sense.
Hindu scriptures declare that ãtman is immortal and divine. In Hindu view, therefore, an individual is potentially divine and eternally perfect. There are two states of existence associated with ãtman: the bound state and the liberated state. In the bound state, ãtman is associated with a physical body. As a result of this association, ãtman is subject to mãyã, which causes it to forget its true divine nature and commit evil deeds in the world. The powers of mãyã are two-fold. As cosmic ignorance, mãyã deludes the ãtman into forge-tting its own true nature. As creative energy (shakti) of Brahman, mãyã is the material cause of the universe. In the liberated state, ãtman is said to have attained moksha (spiritual perfection) and consequently enjoys union with God. Moksha simply means freedom of the individual from ignorance, i.e. realization of one's own true divine nature, or union with God.
Although there are various viewpoints, the predominant Hindu view is that the same ãtman dwells in all beings. Thus, all human beings have a common source and are interconnected in a subtle way. The reason humans are different from each other (or at least think they are different) is that the manifestation of ãtman in a physical body depends upon the type and construction of the physical body. Just as the same electricity manifests as cold in a refrigerator and heat in an oven, the same ãtman manifests as a saint in one human body and a sinner in another human body, owing to the past karma (see Chapter 6). Thus a sinner of today is a potential saint of tomorrow.
In Hindu view, an individual is not born a sinner, but commits sin due to mãyã. Just as darkness quickly disappears upon the appea-rance of light, an individual's delusion vanishes when he gains self-knowledge. Self-effort and guru's (spiritual preceptor) grace is all that is needed to dispel one's ignorance and attain self-knowledge.
Hindu View of the World
The Sanskrit word for creation is srishtî, which means "projecting gross phenomenon from subtle substance." In Hindu view, creation originates from the Ultimate Reality, Brahman.14 When a potter makes a pot from clay, he makes the process happen and is the efficient cause. The wheel he uses to spin and mold the pot is the instrumental cause, and the clay is the material cause. Unlike Jewish, Christian and other Western theologies, the predominant Hindu view is that Brahman is the efficient cause, the instrumental cause, as well as the material cause of the universe. Thus Brahman is the whole universe, animate and inanimate. With this thought in mind, Hindus worship God as abiding in all created things and beings.
Brahman manifests as consciousness (ãtman) and nature (matter) in the phenomenal world. This manifestation is made possible by mãyã, the inherent creative energy of Brahman. Hindu scriptures reveal that the manifestation of Brahman as the things and beings of the world is a divine sport (lîlã). In this eternal sport Brahman manifests in diverse forms in the phenomenal world (creation), stays in that mode for a time (sustenance), and reverts back to the original state (dissolution). This process of creation, sustenance and disso-lution is repetitive and occurs in cycles without beginning (anãdi) and without end (ananta). Thus, in Hindu view there is no absolute beginning or end to the universe. Whenever the words "beginning" and "end" appear in Hindu scriptures, they simply mean the beginning and end of a particular cycle of creation.
In the beginning of creation, consciousness is wrapped up in matter. Through the process of evolution, consciousness evolves from lower forms to higher forms of life until it becomes aware of itself in a human body. From that stage onwards, it struggles to free itself from physical limitations (through spiritual discipline) and attain union with Brahman, the original source of consciousness.
In Hindu view, individuals go through the repeated cycles of birth and death, while time goes through the repeated cycles of creation, sustenance, and dissolution. Thus, the Hindu notion of time is cyclic and both time and individuals are viewed as non-unique entities. The Western notion of time is unidirectional and in the Western system both individuals and time are viewed as unique entities.
The Hindu view of God allows one to exercise complete freedom in worship. A Hindu may worship any deity as he chooses based upon his own mental constitution. He knows that different modes of worship are just different roads to the same destination of union with God. He has no quarrel with other religions as he considers them as different rivers flowing to ultimately merge in the same ocean. As such, he has no urge to forcibly convert other people to his own faith.
The belief in the existence of the all-pervasive Divinity in the universe creates an attitude of acceptance, reverence, benevolence and compassion for all things and beings in the mind of a Hindu. He does not see any intrinsic evil in Nature. He sees the ground, the sky, the trees, the hills and mountains, and the rivers all sacred.
The Hindu concepts of the individual and the world eliminate the fear of God or eternal hell from one's mind. A Hindu considers life a divine pilgrimage from "unreal to real, darkness to light, and death to immortality." 4 Being on this road of pilgrimage, a Hindu has no intention to hurt anyone. He is thoroughly convinced that whatever he does in this life will come back to him in the next life. Thus he must do good and be good now, as he will have to come back again and again in this world until all scores are settled.
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