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Essentials of Hinduism: Renaissance in Hinduism


In the 18th century religion suffered a serious decline mainly because the impact of a completely different civilisation. English education destroyed the isolation of India and brought about an active ferment. Many Indians of the time became either sceptics who leaned towards Christianity, or reactionaries who sought to preserve at any cost the ancient forms and institutions. Fortunately, at this time, enlightened Europeans like Sir William Jones, Sir Charles Wilkins, Colebrook, Monier-Williams and Max Muller revealed by comment and by translation the treasures of ancient Indian wisdom. Their work was later supplemented by art lovers and art critics, who revealed the secrets of sacred and secular art-forms and concepts.

As an outcome of these influences and counter-influences, there arose a series of movements which have been rightly described as a renaissance of Hindu life and thought. Raja Ramamohun Roy was the most outstanding pioneer of these movements. He struck a note of universalism in tune with the spirit of the Upanishads. Born in Bengal in 1772, he studied Persian, Arabic and English. In 1803 he published a book in Persian, with a preface in Arabic, entitled Tuhfat-ul- Muwahhidin. It carried a protest against idolatry and sought to establish a universal religion based on the idea of the unity of Godhead. He started a controversy with the Christian missionaries and published a book in which he tried to separate the moral teachings of Jesus from the miracles described in the Gospels. Ramamohun Roy, along with David Hare, stressed the necessity of education in India on modern lines, in opposition to those who objected to English education and insisted on a return to the past. He repeatedly declared that he had no intention of breaking away from the ancestral religion, and wished to see it restored to its original purity.

The Brahmo Samaj

In order to carry out his ideas, Raja Ramamohun Roy founded the Brahmo Samaj on the basis of theism. The Trust Deed of the Samaj lay down that "no graven image, statue or sculpture carving, painting, picture, portrait or the likeness of anything shall be admitted within the building."

Debendranath Tagore, the next great leader of the Samaj, formulated the Brahmopadesa, comprising tenets from the Upanishads and Tantras. His successor, Keshub Chandra Sen, sought to incorporate Christian ideals into the Brahmo Samaj movement. He began the compilation of a scripture including passages from the Holy Books of many religions - Hindu, Buddhist, Hebrew, Christian, Muslim etc. Then he went to England in 1870, he was welcomed by many Christian organizations. As the result of secessions in the Brahmo Samaj, three institutions arose: The Adi Brahmo Samaj; the New Dispensation of Keshub Chandra Sen; and the Sadharan Brahmo Samaj founded by dissenters from the Keshub Church. The Sadharan Samaj, led by Shivanath Sastry and Ananda Mohun Bose, gave a rational, monistic interpretation of the Upanishads, stressing the essential unity of the universal self and the individual self. The following doctrines, as noted in Renaissance of Hinduism are common to all these varieties and offshoots of the Brahmo Samaj:

1. They have no faith in any scripture as an authority.

2. They have no faith in Avatars.

3. They denounce polytheism and idol-worship.

4. They are against caste restrictions.

5. They make faith in the doctrines of Karma and Rebirth optional.

Another offshoot of the Brahmo Samaj, the Prarthana Samaj was founded by Justice Ranade in Bombay. Its programme included disapproval of caste, recognition of widow marriage, and the encouragement of women's education.

The Arya Samaj

As a reaction against the influences typified by Raja Ramamohun Roy and Justice Ranade, the Arya Samaj was founded by Swami Dayanand Saraswathi. It attacked the Brahmo Samaj for its pro-European and pro-Christian attitude. A great Sanskrit scholar and a believer in the doctrines of Karma and Rebirth, Swami Dayanand sought to revive the Vedic ideals and laid stress on Brahmacharya and Sannyasa. He believed implicitly in the ancient scriptures, giving Puranic Hinduism in favour of Vedic Hinduism. The Puranic texts, he said, had no Vedic sanction. Holding the Vedas alone as authoritative, he stated that God and the human soul are two distinct entities, different in nature and attributes, though they are inseparable from each other as the pervader and the pervaded. The doctrine of Karma and Samsara is accepted by the Arya Samaj. One of its main activities is Suddhi, a purification ceremony, by which non-Hindus are converted to Hinduism. The depressed classes and Harijans are entitled to be invested with the sacred thread and are given equal status with other Hindus. The Arya Samaj also reclaimed many Hindus who had been converted to Islam and Christianity. Sanghatan, organization of the Hindus for self-defence, is one of the main principles of the Arya Samaj, and it has played its part as the church militant in the Hindu fold.

The Theosophical Society

The Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 by Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky, co-operated with the Arya Samaj and tried for a time to organize lndian life on national lines and check the activities of Christian missionaries. Col. Olcott and Madame Blavatsky went later to Ceylon, declared themselves Buddhists, and took part in a movement for the revival of Buddhism. Dr. Annie Besant joined the Society after a period of militant agnosticism, side by side with notable social service, and political work amongst the Fabians in England. She became the head of the Theosophical Society in 1891. Claiming that she had been a Hindu in her former birth, Annie Besant worked throughout her life for the regeneration and activization of Hindu thought and Hindu life. She published a translation of the Bhagavad-Gita along with Dr. Bhagavan Das and popularized Hindu ideals in her numerous publications and marvellously eloquent speeches. A defender of many orthodox ideals, she turned later to social reform, which included the partial modification of the caste system. . One of the main principles of Theosophy is the belief in a brotherhood of great teachers of the past who are supposed to be living still, watching over and guiding the evolution of humanity. The Theosophical Society under Dr. Besant's guidance spread the fundamental principles of the Hindu religion - Karma, Reincarnation, Yoga and spiritual evolution.

Sri Ramakrishna and Vivekananda

Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, a great devotee and mystic, had a broad outlook of universalism. After accepting the discipline of Yoga and Tantric Sadhana, he underwent the discipline of the Vaisnava, the Christian and the Islamic ways of life. To rouse the religious feelings of the worldly-minded and re-affirm the ancient truths of Hinduism by an appeal to experience, he trained a devoted band of followers, the most outstanding of whom was Narendranath, who was later well known as Swami Vivekananda. Sri Ramakrishna's teachings were neither new nor heterodox. As Swami Vivekananda said on one occasion, Ramakrishna brought old truths to light. He was an embodiment of the past religious thought of India. Like other great religious teachers of the world, he projected his ideas through parables or images. Questioned, for instance, on the problem of evil, Sri Ramakrishna said:" Evil exists in God as poison in a serpent. What is poison to us is not poison to the serpent. Evil is evil only from the point of view of man." In other words, from the absolute standpoint, there is no evil, but from the relative standpoint evil is a terrible reality. Ramakrishna preached that realization is the essence of religion and that all religions are paths leading to the same goal. He deprecated metaphysical subtleties and insisted on deep devotion. He claimed that through his intense devotion to the image of the Divine Mother in Dakshineshwar that realization had come to him. Swami Vivekananda said:" If men like Sankara, Chaitanya and Ramakrishna found image worship helpful, there is no sense in declining it."

Ramakrishna's religion and the movement he founded by gathering around him a band of devoted workers were essentially practical. This aspect was expounded and universalized by Swami Vivekananda. Under the inspiration of Ramakrishna, he changed from scepticism to religious realization and travelled all over the world, preaching the essence of the truths of Hinduism. He dedicated himself to the service of India and particularly to the service of those who were starving, depressed, or beyond the social pale. The work for the uplift of the Indian masses was for him as important as meditation or Yoga.

At the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda struck a note of universal toleration based on the Hindu belief that all religions lead to the same God. He also declared in Chicago that the religion of the Hindus is centred on self-realization; idols, temples, churches and books are aids and nothing more. Swami Vivekananda strengthened the Ramakrishna organization by founding monasteries and centres of Hindu teaching in India and abroad. He reinterpreted Hinduism and stated that the abstract Advaita must become living. All through his life and especially during his travels abroad, he insisted that the essential features of Hinduism are its universality, its impersonality, its rationality, catholicity and optimism. Above all, its authority is not affected by the historicity of any particular man. Swami Vivekananda told his countrymen that they had become weak and miserable because they did not bring their Vedanta out of the books into life itself. His great contribution to Hinduism lay in applying the Hindu creed to the elevation of the masses and abolishing India's isolation from the world, culturally, spiritually, and in many aspects of social life. He founded a great and worldwide organization, the Ramakrishna Mission, which is working for the spiritual welfare and multiform amelioration of the living conditions of the people of India and other countries.

Sri Aurobindo

Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, one of the latest exponents and interpreters of Hinduism, has described ancient Indian philosophy as follows: "an ingrained and dominant spirituality, an inexhaustible vital creativeness and gusto of life, and, mediating between them, a powerful, penetrating and scrupulous intelligence, combined with the rational ethical and aesthetic mind at a high intensity of action, created the harmony of the ancient Indian culture." Sri Aurobindo gave new interpretations of the Vedas and the Vedanta, and in his Essay on the Gita he expounded what he called "the integral view of life". His great work, The Life Divine, is a summing up of his philosophy of "the Descent of the Divine into Matter". The importance of Sri Aurobindo's work lies not only in his restatements of old ideals but also in his attempt to explain the true methods of Yoga as apart from mere asceticism and illusionism.

Sri Ramana Maharshi

A recent example of transcendental spiritual experience manifested in life is Sri Ramana Maharshi, who passed away in 1950. A man of powerful personality, he taught as much by his silence as by his sermons. He had a directness of approach and a universality of outlook, which were products of true enlightenment.

Sri Rabindranath Tagore

In the popularization of ancient Hindu ideals, Rabindranath Tagore has played a significant part. Tagore has made a suggestive interpretation of the Vedic religion and the substance of the Upanishads.

Mahatma Gandhi

In the popularization of ancient Hindu ideals, Mahatma Gandhi has played a significant part. The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi have led to vast social changes and to the uplift of the backward and depressed classes. He has stated that his whole religion is based on surrender to the will of God, the spirit of renunciation as embodied in the Isa Upanishad, the Gita and the ideals of practical service. He has given a new interpretation to the doctrine of non-violence which is as old as Hinduism, and tried to adapt it by means of satyagraha to political and moral issues.

Mahatma Gandhi worked for the uplift of the depressed and backward classes and for the creation of national entity. Speaking in Travancore on the Temple Entry Proclamation enacted there in 1936, he said: "These temples are the visible symbols of God's power and authority. They are, therefore, truly called the houses of God, the houses of prayer. We go there in a prayerful mood and perform, first thing in the morning after ablution, the act of dedication and surrender. Scoffers and sceptics may say that all these are figments of the imagination, that we are imagining God in the images we see. I will say to these scoffers that it is so. I am not ashamed of confessing that imagination is a powerful factor in life. Now you can easily understand that, in the presence of God, the Ruler of the Universe, who pervades everything, even those whom we have called the lowest of the low, all are equal."