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A Handbook of Hindu Religion: Introduction


Hinduism is one of the most important of living religions in the world; it is the oldest of all and is called Sanātana Dharma. No study of religion can be complete without taking its finest and highest forms as revealed in its sacred scriptures and as interpreted by its leading exponents and realised by its seers, sages and saints. Hinduism in a sense supplies the fullest material for the study of religion and can claim to be the one religion which is most comprehensive and universal.

It is not an historical religion, but it is a religion without any historic founders and it has eternal foundation. Historical religions base their doctrines and dogmas on the revelations of their prophets. Hinduism is based on the Vedas, the eternal scriptures revealed to the seers and sages and testified to by the Smṛtis and transmitted in an unbroken tradition. The Veda is the word of God and is God Himself and is therefore eternal or nitya. It is apauruṣeya, impersonal, not manmade. Hinduism is sanātana religion without beginning and end and is one continuous revelation consisting of the Veda, Vedāngas, Smṛtis, Itihāsas, Purāṇas, Āgamas, the hymns of the Ālvārs and the Nāyanmārs. It deals with eternal spiritual truths adopted to changing conditions and is therefore fixed in essentials and flexible in non-essentials like rites and rituals.

The term Hinduism is of foreign origin and vague. The term Sanātana Dharma is therefore preferable to it and it has a rounded perfection and is comprehensive; but the name Hinduism is sanctioned by usage. Dharma applies to righteousness exemplified in practical life, individual and social, and implies also mokṣa-dharma or the nature of freedom from the ills of life or Saṁsāra. It is thus a way of life and a view of life and includes both theory and practice. The Veda is the chief authority or pramāna for Hinduism, and as aids to its practical understanding are the other scriptures like the Smṛtis. There are four Vedas, the Ṛg-veda, the Yajurveda, the Sāmaveda and the Atharvaveda. Each Veda has three divisions, namely the Mantra, the Brāhmana and the Upaniṣad. One who knows the inner meaning of the Mantras and the Brāhmaṇas is a Mantra-dṛś, who acquires mastery over nature, internal and external. It is wrong to say that the Vedas belong to the child stage of humanity. An ancient Vedic text which says that the Sat or God is one and the seers call it variously contains the keynote of Hinduism and its universality. The Upaniṣads or the Vedānta are the most sublime teachings of Hinduism and are called Brahma Vidyā, containing the wisdom of Brahman, by knowing which everything is known. They are the solace of life and death. Vedic knowledge is summed up in the Vedāntic wisdom of Brahman enshrined in the Praṇava or Aum. Though the Vedas refer to the economical and ethical (the hedonistic) ends of life, the highest end is mokṣa or the realisation of Brahman. It is therefore called Brahmavidyā. The Veda cannot be known without aids or angas and there are six aids like phonetics, grammar and astronomy.

The Smṛtis like those of Manu bring out the ethics of the Hindus in their individual and social aspects. They deal more with duties and virtues than with rights or privileges. There are cardinal virtues like truth and ahiṁsa which are universally applicable and also relative duties or yuga-dharmas which are true only in certain periods. The Smṛti of sage Parāsara is meant for this age of Kali. The two Itihāsas, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata describe the two avatāras of Viṣṇu, Śrī Rama and Śrī Kṛṣṇa. God incarnates into history at critical periods to restore righteousness and punish wickedness. Even such punishment is ultimately only for the reformation of the wicked man. There are eighteen Purāṇasof which the chief are the Viṣṇupurāna and the Bhāgavata. They are chiefly cosmic accounts dealing with the origin, the preservation and the destruction of the Universe. Their chief aim is to bring out the increasing purpose of God as rakṣaka or the maker of muktas. The Āgamas explain the way in which God comes down to the world of man in the form of arca or idol in order to redeem him from his sinfulness. The hymns of the Nāyanmārs and the Ālvārs are mainly sung in praise of arca or idol in the temple for the bestowal of His redemptive grace.

The study of the Vedas, the Smṛtis, the Itihāsas, the Purāṇas, the Āgamas and the experiences of the Ālvārs and the Nāyanmārs reveal the inner truth of religion, viz., the gradual descent of God to the human level to lift him up to the Divine level. The Brahman of the Vedas becomes the antaryāmin of the Vedānta, the Īśvara of the Smṛtis and the Purāṇas, the Avatāra of the Itihāsas and the arca of theĀgamas, Ālvārs and Nāyanmārs. With God's grace man ascends from the animal and human through the spiritual stages to the divine stage of mukti. Thus all the scriptures have a unity of spiritual purpose suited to different types and persons.

Hinduism as Vedānta expounds this unity of import in a philosophic way. The six Darśanasor systems of philosophy were composed by different Ṛṣis with one single aim, namely, the removal of the ills of life to the attainment of mokṣa. Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika deals with the logic or pramāṇas and their categories of life. The Sāṅkhya-Yoga deals with puruṣa and prakṛtiand the way in which the puruṣa frees himself from prakṛti. Purvamimāṁsa stresses the ethics of dharma. Uttara-mimāṁsa or the Vedānta is the supreme philosophy of Brahman by knowing whom everything is known.

Each of these systems helps the mumukṣu or the seeker after Brahman to attain viveka, vairāgya and ethical purity respectively as essential steps to the attainment of Brahman.

The pramāṇas prove that Brahman is the highest object of knowledge. They affirm the reality of the supreme puruṣa. The highest dharma consists in attaining Him. This is the way of Vedānta as taught in the Upaniṣads, the Gitā and the Brahmasūtras which are called the three prasthanas. The Upaniṣads describe the direct experience of God by the Ṛṣis; the Gitā is the essence of the Upaniṣads and the Sūtras expound their philosophy.

The term darśana brings out the comprehensiveness of the Sanātana Dharma or Vedānta. Darśana ordinarily applies to knowledge gained through the senses or pratyakṣa as in the example, "This rose is red." It is real and not illusory though it is particular and fleeting. The knowledge gained through reason or anumāna is more stable as it gives us some insight into the universal laws which explain the particular facts given in sense-perception. It is thus darśana in the sense of reasoning, as in the example, "The earth goes round the sun, because it is a planet." Higher than inference is intuition or direct knowledge of God or Brahman, as in the experience of mystics like Nammālvār. It is Brahmadarśana and is the supreme end of knowledge. Thusdarśana is going from the physical sense organ to the inner eye of reason and finally to Brahma-cakṣus or the direct realisation of Brahman. In this way knowledge leads to the more of itself; it grows from sense-perception or pratyakṣa to reasoning or anumāna. Reasoning develops into direct realisation of Brahman as given in Śāstra. All these three ways are interconnected and complementary and there is no contradiction in their relation. Veda is not blind faith as it is a spiritual verity verified by the Ṛṣis and other seers of God. The best test of Vedic knowledge is in our direct intuition of God with the guidance of the Guru who has seen Him face to face. In this way darśana as sense-knowledge becomes darśana or seeing with the inner eye of reason and finally as direct Brahma-darśana or experience of God by the Ṛṣis and other seers of God. Thus the term darśana applied to Hinduism is all-inclusive. It accepts the reality of matter or the world of nature as described by science, but rejects materialism as the final view of life. It accepts the importance of reason but rejects rationalism as the final view of life. It accepts the importance of scripture or sāṣtra but rejects theology as blind faith. Hinduism gives a place to science, philosophy, and theology and reconciles them. It says that the best proof of the existence of God is the experience of God.

Hinduism is not a personal religion as it insists on the unity of life as a whole and the duties of each person to the other members of the society. But it does not accept the western view that God needs man's co-operation in the furtherance of His purpose. Man does his work as worship of God in the spirit of kaiṅkarya in utter humility. Every act of social service is really the adoration of God as the inner self in all beings. There is no spiritual barrier between one Jīva and another.

Hinduism is thus coherent, synthetic and universal. It is coherent because it satisfies every Pramāna and sees no dividing line between reason and revelation. It is synthetic because it gives a place to every system of thought and every school of Vedānta. It is also tolerant because it recognises sects though it rejects sectarianism. It is universal because it affirms the truth that every man is a son of God and he can intuit Him directly. But it is not a mere hotch-potch or eclectic faith. It provides for different types of people but at the same time emphatically declares that the goal or aim is the same. Every one is ātman or spiritual, and there is one ātman in and beyond all; and every one can realise Him. The terms applied to Hinduism like Sanātana Dharma, Vedānta or Darśana and Brahma-vidyā are all synonymous. They all affirm the same truths in spirituality and service.

The chief topics that are dealt with in this work relate to the three reals or tattvas, the means of attaining God, including Hindu sociology and methods of worship and the nature of the supreme puruṣārtha or mokṣa and finally the value of Hinduism as a universal and catholic religion.