Samarpan/Printable version

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Hinduism is based on the spiritual principles and realizations of the sages, which over a great length of time got recorded in the books called the Vedas. Unlike other religions, it has no human founder, and hence its date of origin can never be fixed; it has existed since the dawn of spiritual thoughts in the world. Although the term "Hindu" is of relatively late origin, it has been accepted to signify the religion of the ethnic Indians.

Hinduism does not claim any exclusive right over the spiritual truths it preaches, and it believes that a person can reach the spiritual goal through any path. So it recognizes every faith and religion with respect, and at the same time does not approve of religious conversion.

Hinduism-The Religion and the Society

Hinduism is both a religion and a society, and their practices get overlapped. For example, caste is essentially a social system to safeguard the interests of particular groups with common ancestry. But over the years it has been identified as an integral part of Hinduism, the religion. Similarly, putting on the sacred thread was a religious practice. But later got transformed into a social custom for the upper caste Hindus.

Who is a Hindu?

Religion and Hinduism are synonymous, and hence Hinduism cannot be defined the way Islam or Christianity can be. However, for the sake of convenience, a Hindu is expected to have these basic beliefs and practices:

  • Acceptance of the spiritual truths as preached in the Vedas, and elaborated in any of its sacred books.
  • The belief in the transmigratory nature of the individual soul till it attains mukti, the absolute freedom from every kind of bondage and duality. This is the most important philosophical concept of the Vedas.
  • Acceptance of the law of karma, according to which every action produces its result, and does not allow the soul to get liberated till there is any residue of them left, good or bad.
  • Acceptance of oneness as the fundamental truth of existence.

Fountain of Hinduism-The Vedas

Hinduism is based on the teachings of the Vedas. These sacred books are the most ancient preserved literature of the world, and it is difficult to say when exactly these works were composed. According to educated guess, these are more than seven to eight thousand years old, with the last additions made well before 1500 B.C.E.

The contents of these books are the records of the spiritual realization of the sages of that period. Some of the mantras of the Vedas, including the Gaytri mantra are quite popular and are recited regularly by millions. However, very few Hindus read the Vedas, and fewer still understand them. Yet, the Hindu view of existence is shaped wholly by these sacred books only.

The Vedas are also called Shruti(lit. heard), since they were passed down from the teacher to the disciple orally, and were considered too sacred to be written down. They are four in number: Rigveda, Samveda, Yajurveda, Atharva Veda. The Mahabharata mentions that earlier there used to be only one Veda, but Vyasa divided them into four for easy memorization. This division is based on poeticmetres: Rigveda is in rik metre (a particular Vedic metre), Samaveda can be sung, Yajurveda is in Yajusmetre, and Atharva Veda has composition both in prose and poetry.

Other Sacred Books

For thousands of years Hindus have been discussing and explaining various aspects of religion. This has resulted in a huge mass of religious literature whose variety and depth leaves one awestruck. Most of these books are in Sanskrit, but every Indian language has its own version and translation of the important works. Because of the sheer volume of the literature, it is difficult for anyone to study them entirely.

The more important ones of these books are:

Upanishads: These are the last sections of the Vedas, but because of their special philosophical nature and importance, they are treated separately. These books contain the philosophical truths realized by the sages, which form the philosophical base of Hinduism. The most important of these truths is the Oneness of everything, Sarvam Khalu idam Brahma, and that the individual is one with the universal, Aham Brahma Asmi.

It is believed that there are one hundred and eight Upanishads, but ten of them are more famous.

Epics: Ramayana and Mahabharata: These are the two great epics that have served as the hope, ideal and inspiration of the Hindus. These works are not mere stories of the kings and queens, but highlight the struggle of an individual to hold on to religious principles in good times and also during crisis. In addition, they contain information regarding nearly everything that a person may need to lead a healthy life. The Mahabharata is also famous for its sheer volume of one hundred thousand verses that makes it the largest epic of the world.

Many classics have been composed in Indian and other South East Asian languages centering the lives of Sri Rama and Sri Krishna. Every Hindu child learns, reads, and knows the main stories of Sri Rama, Sri Krishna, and the Pandava brothers, and even illiterate Hindus recite regularly from these classics.

The Gita is the most popular Hindu sacred book, and can be treated as the handbook of Hinduism. Composed in mere seven hundred verses, it is a small part of the Mahabharata, but stands in its own majesty of poetry, philosophy and spirituality. Devout Hindus recite it daily as a source of inspiration, and also read it aloud when someone dies. With seven hundred verses in eighteen chapters, it contains practically everything of religion, and also the complete philosophy of the Hindus. The Puranas are eighteen in number and form the mythological base of the Hindus. In total these have around 5.5 lakh verses, through which the popular stories of gods and goddesses are described. The most popular of these books is Srimad Bhagavata Purana which deals mainly with the story of Sri Krishna. Shiva Maha Purana is another popular work centering Lord Shiva.

The Puranas were composed to suit the needs of the masses for an easy understanding of the spiritual truths. Despite their mythological nature, they discuss philosophy, ethics and rituals of the Hindus in detail, and hence are considered to be complete scriptures in themselves.

The Smritis are the law books of the Hindus which prescribe the personal and social code. The rules laid down in these books cover practically everything --starting from the most trivial daily acts of an individual, through the duties of a king, to the highest philosophical wisdom that one may require to lead a good life. They are not like the constitution of a country, or the criminal procedure code, but are a means to take an individual to the highest spiritual realization.

The Smritis are based on the principles of the Vedas, but have been written for that particular period of time. So, there are innumerable smritis, of which the most famous is Manu Smriti, written around the second century B.C.E.

The sages knew that a society ruled by archaic laws becomes stagnant. So new smritis were codified from time to time according to the need of the age. Unfortunately, no new smriti has been written in the last thousand years or so. This has rusted the vitality of Hinduism.

The Tantras are the expansive growth of the ritualistic aspect of religion. Most of these books are devoted to Lord Shiva,or Shakti, the female principle of God. Some of the practices mentioned in these books do not meet social approval, and hence they are not as popular as other books. However the books on Tantra are innumerable, and dictate the rituals of Hinduism. In every ritualistic worship of the Hindus, the practices are drawn either directly from the Vedas, or from the Tantras.

Like every other class of literature discussed above, The Tantras are a complete system of thought with a distinct philosophy, mythology and rituals. Even without referring to the Vedas, a follower of Tantra can learn everything that is to be known in religion.

The Chandi,or Durga Saptasati is devoted to Shakti, the Cosmic female principle behind the universe. Composed in seven hundred verses, it is a part of the Markandeya Purana, and is considered to be an extremely sacred work. It is believed that a daily recital of this sacred book brings safety and success.

In addition to these, there are thousands of books which serve as the basis for various sampradaya (religious sects) of Hindus.

Milestones of Spiritual Life

The need for milestones

Every spiritual aspirant is like a lonely traveler on the unknown path of the journey within -- a journey that makes him give up old associations, takes him through new vistas,allows him to leave behind milestones and finally gives him the experience of the Reality.But the process extracts its price. Old association, guidance, support, care and protection found in the external world are lost during this journey, and at times the aspirant gets the feeling of being directionless in the uncharted expanse of spiritual vastness.

This brings in the need for a systematic work on milestones in spiritual life, by referring to which any spiritual practitioner can make out where he stands in the journey within.

Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive work on this subject. Words of masters focus mostly on sadhana, with scanty references to its milestones. Also, different religions and various spiritual paths have different modes of sadhana, and hence it is difficult to have a universal yardstick of spiritual progress. However, since Sri Ramakrishna practiced various religions and religious paths, his words and experiences can be used to create a model for milestones in spiritual life.

This work aims at finding the parameters of spiritual growth. Although it is not possible to objectify spiritual growth fully, this work gives a definite idea of one's state of spiritual progress.

Milestones in Nutshell

Talking of stages of spiritual growth,Sri Ramakrishna said:

'There are two indications of such knowledge. First, longing, that is to say, love for God. You may indulge in reasoning or discussion, but if you feel no longing or love, it is all futile. Second, the awakening of the Kundalini. As long as the Kundalini remains asleep, you have not attained knowledge of God.(Gospel, p.610-11).

'The first stage is that of the beginner. He studies and hears. Second is the stage of the struggling aspirant. He prays to God, meditates on him, and sings his name and glories. The third stage is that of the perfect soul. He has seen God, realized him directly and immediately in his inner consciousness. (p.344) ... The inner consciousness must be awakened through the grace of God. Through this awakening a man goes into samadhi. He often forgets that he hasa body. He gets rid of his attachment to "women and gold" and does not enjoy any talk unless it is about God. Worldly talk gives him pain. Through the awakening of the inner consciousness one realizes the all-pervading consciousness (p.734).'

Madhusudan Saraswati details the process of spiritual growth in his Gudhartha Dipika

on Bhagavad-Gita as

'Steadfastness in selfless works comes first; from that follows purification of the mind;thereafter the renunciation of all actions, led by control of sense organs etc.; then comes steadfastness in devotion to the Lord, together with vichara on the Upanisadic sentences.

From that comes steadfastness in the Knowledge of Reality.