1.1. What is Hinduism ? When was Hinduism founded ?
The name 'Hinduism' is of a much recent origin, coined by the Greeks and Arabians to refer to the religion of the people living around and to the East of the river Indus. The earliest records of this religion are in the Rig Veda, the oldest known human literature. Some portions of the Rig Veda have been dated to before 6000 BC. This implies that the religion was in vogue atleast a few centuries earlier than that. Hinduism has been gaining increasing popularity due to its high philosophy, broad outlook and non-dogmatic approach. Hinduism is different from many other religions in that it does not have a founder and does not claim exclusivity. It explicitly accepts all religions as valid.
1.2. How has Hinduism survived for so long ? Is the Hinduism practised today the same as that practiced a few millenia ago ?
Hinduism has stood the test of time much more effectively than any other religion of the world. This is mainly because of its clear separation of the essentials from the non-essentials. Every religion has a few principles, which are independant of the cultural context of the followers, and a few practices which need to vary with time, place and cultural background. Hinduism has clearly separated these two right since its known history. The principles are presented in texts classified as 'Sruthis', which primarily comprise the part of the Vedas called Upanisads. The changable texts are classified as 'Smritis', which include various texts on etiquette, moral and ethical codes of conduct, law and justice. The former form the universal principles and the latter form their culture-dependant implementation. The essential principles of Hinduism are the same as they were concieved of by the sages who lived during the Vedic period. Even the Vedas have come down to the present day unaltered. The Vedas are being chanted even today with the same melody and rhythm as they were chanted during the Vedic age. The social customs and values have changed to cater to the needs and to utilize the means of changing times and culture, without altering the basic principles and goals.
1.3. Why is there so much confusion about Hinduism ? I see Hinduism as a mass of conflicting ideas.
Due to the enormous time period through which Hinduism has been practised, it has passed through a huge spectrum of cultural environments. Due to this, the non-essential portion of Hinduism has passed through so much changes in various places during various times. This has resulted in a situation where even people who have born and grown in Hinduism face a lot of difficulty in understanding Hinduism. Many see Hinduism as a huge mass of conflicting ideas. This is mainly due to two interrelated reasons.
Not distinguishing between the essentials and the non-essentials.
Trying to apply the culture-dependant non-essential concepts out of context.
This gives rise to a plethora of questions in the minds of almost anyone who come in touch with Hinduism. This FAQ is an attempt to answer a few of these questions.
1.4. What are the basic principles of Hinduism ?
The basic principles of Hinduism are in the Upanisads. They have been collected, organized and explained in various other texts, but the root source are the Upanisads. Hinduism has three basic principles.
It is God who has become this Universe and everything in it.
Whatever is seen, dreamed or imagined are nothing but manifestations of God. God is beyond space, time, causation and all distinctions like gender, race, species, living/non-living and form/formless. Since He is beyond space, He is omnipresent. Since He is beyond time, He is eternal. Since He is beyond the concept of form, He is with form, without form, both and neither. Every form is His and yet He is formless and beyond the concept of form. Similarly with all attributes concievable by the mind.
The aim of life is to 'know' God.
God cannot be 'known' in the usual sense of the word. God is the Knower of everything. We call it 'realizing' God. This is beyond the mind. It is a direct experience of God. This is the ultimate goal of life. Till we reach this goal, we will have to live again and again. Till we reach this goal, we have to undergo birth, death and again birth and so on. Everytime we are born, we continue our journey towards the goal from where we left. So nothing is lost by death on this journey. When the goal is reached, there is no need for anymore death or birth. The person is said to have attained Immortality. Actually the person goes beyond all limitations. Even the basic limitations imposed by the concept of individuality and personality vanish.
There are intermediate milestones and targets set by Hinduism. They are Dharma - righteousness, Artha - wealth acquired by righteous means and Kama - quenching of desires within the limits of Dharma and Artha. As there is a scope for lot of misconception about these intermediate targets, there are several texts explaining them. These are intermediate targets and not ends. The ultimate aim is Moksha - freedom from limitations by God realization. Dharma, Artha and Kama should be stepping stones and thus means to the end, which is Moksha. But this does not mean that Artha and Kama are forbidden by Hinduism. According to Hinduism, if people pursue and enjoy Artha and Kama within the boundaries of Dharma, they will naturally develop the maturity to enquire and aspire after Moksha in due course of time.
As many people, so many ways to God.
Every religion is a way to God. No way to God is superior to the other. However, depending on the mental temperament and cultural background of a person, one way might be better suited to him than another. This is difference arises due to the difference in the temperament of the person and cannot be used to judge the general efficacy of a path. "All paths are true. Your path for you. My path for me." This is the principle of Hinduism.
Everything else is secondary and should not violate these three basic principles.
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Beginner Level Questions:
2.1. Is Hinduism polytheistic (accepts many gods)?
Is Hinduism pantheistic (involves worshipping nature - trees, hills, etc)?
Why do Hindus worship stones ?
Why do Hindu Gods have fancy forms like elephant faced, monkey faced, with six faces, with four hands, etc ?
Hinduism says that there is one God. Just as a man is called "father" by this son, "husband" by his wife, "son" by this father, and so on, God is called by various names and worshipped in various forms depending on the mood and approach of the devotee. When God is worshipped to remove hurdles, He is worshipped as "Ganesha". When God is worshipped to bless with good understanding of art and science, He is worshipped as "Saraswathi", and so on. Similarly, when a devotee wants to worship God as mother, he may worship as "Kali". When a devotee wants to worship God as a child, he may worship as "Krishna". If a devotee wants to worship God as the formless, attributeless, transcedent being, he may worship as "Brahman". These are all to suit the various temperaments of the devotees. By all these various forms and names, the devotee very well knows that He is worshipping God only. So Hinduism is monotheistic.
Hinduism also accepts that all religions talk about the one God. It does not have concepts like the god of the Egyptians and the god of the Jews, which basically implies that there are many gods. Hinduism says that the god of the Hindus, Egyptians, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Zorastrians, Aztecs, Mayans, Maoris, etc are all the same God. Hinduism says that all are worshipping the same God in different ways. Again, one way is not better than the other way. All ways to worship God are accepted by God if performed with faith and devotion.
In fact, it goes one step ahead than other religions. Not only that it says there is only one God; it says that everything in this universe are manifestations of God. In Hinduism, there is no the concept of "creation" in the literal sense of the word. It is God who becomes or manifests as the universe. The universe is not different from God. Everything is God. So, the devotee can take anything which appeals to him as a form of God, and worship Him. The omniscient God knows that the devotee is worshipping Him. The exact name and form do not matter. The attitude and sincerity is what matters.
Similarly a Hindu does not worship a tree or a hill just because it is a tree or a hill. The tree or hill is considered a symbol of God and it is the transcendent God who is worshipped through the natural objects. It is the Creator who is worshipped through the creation. So Hinduism is not pantheistic.
An abstract idea is expressed in a concrete form for the mind to grasp easily. For example, to depict the idea that God protects the devotee from the forces of evil, God is depicted with various weapons. Every small aspect of the forms of various Hindu Gods and Goddesses have a meaning behind them. There is a technical convention of symbology followed. For example, a bow indicated the mind; arrows indicate the senses; noose indicates death; drum indicates time; rosary indicates austerity. The symbology is very elaborate and quite context independant. The picture with all this symbology indicate the personality attributed for the particular form of God. If the devotee also has similar aspirations, he chooses the form of God for his worship. As he thinks about the various aspects in the form, he thinks of the aspect of personality the symbol indicates. This way the form is an excellent aid to think of God with certain attributes. For a person who does not know the language of this symbology, it is a fancy picture. But for a person who understands, it is an excellent aid for worship. Also, there is a lot of myths, legends and nice stories associated with every form of God. This allows the devotee to get a very good hold on to the personality and also have a personal psychological relationship with the personality. This offers great stability to the personality of the devotee. The characters which he is aspiring for are deeply engraved in his mind and provide a strong foothold. It is common in the picturization to use various human, animal and even mixed forms. All these have meanings. Any book on the particular aspect of God will give you the exact symbology.
To give further aid to the devotee, even historical characters like Rama, Krishna and various people who lived exemplary lives are given a form with a lot of symbols added. A good example is Hanuman, the monkey-faced. He was a highly self-controlled, learned, wise and loyal devotee of Rama. His devotion to Rama was outstanding. He was very strong in all aspects - physical, mental, moral, emotional andd intellectual. He is worshipped by devotees to grant them his qualities. The story of Rama has accounts of numerous incidents where his hero has showed his covetable qualities. These stories create a vivid picture in the mind of the devotees and encourages them to develop the same qualities.
The ancient Hindus were highly advanced in the science of psychology. There are numerous treatises on this subject. Different forms are found to create different psychological effects. It is by considering this that the various forms are given to various aspects of God. For example, the forms of elephant and mouse seem to arouse the security consciousness in the mind of man. These are used in the form of Ganesha. Thus the form of Ganesha will increase the alerness of the mind. So a worship of Ganesha is advocated before starting anything new. These symbols come from the technical expertise of the ancient Hindus in this field.
2.2. Who is the founder of Hinduism ? Which is the book of Hinduism ?
Hinduism does not have a founder. It has been there from prehistoric times. It is based on the spiritual concepts discovered by numerous people. These concepts are impersonal like other concepts in science. These concepts have been validated by innumerable people. Hinduism invites everyone, irrespective of the cultural background, to validate the truth of the spiritual concepts for themselves.
There is no single book for Hinduism. If you are looking for a source where all the principles are given, then there are three texts. They are called "Prasthana Traya" - the principal three. They all present the same truth.
The first is the Upanisads. These are parts of the Vedas. There are innumerable Upanisads. Ten of them were chosen by Sri Sankara, a great saint and philosopher, as to contain the ideas in all the Upanisads put together. This forms the first principal text. These are unadultered, raw, first-hand observations of spiritual phenomenon. They do not try to propose a model to fit the observations. The observers have not imposed their ideas or even tried to classify the observations.
The second is the Brahma Sutras. This was authored by Veda Vyasa, who masterminded the current organization of the Vedas and the same person who authored other great works like Mahabharata and Bhagavata. Brahma Sutras present the concept in the Upanishads in a logical and highly technical manner. It is a scholarly work which establishes the concepts in the Upanishads on a strong logical foundation.
The third is the Bhagavad Gita. This is a record of the conversation between Sri Krishna and Arjuna. This text talks about the practical application of the concepts in the Upanisads to everyday life.
Thus these three texts present the Hindu philosophy and religion in a scientific and practical manner as - observation, modelling and application.
2.3. Who is a Hindu ? Can I get converted into Hinduism ?
A Hindu is one who believes in the basic principles of Hinduism and applies them to everyday life. The principles are explained above. To repeat, basically they are
There is one God, who has become everything in this universe. This implies that everyone and everything has to be considered with due regard. This talks about the basic unity of the whole universe. This implies that one had to strive for the welfare of the whole. There is no place for selfishness and narrowness.
The aim of life is to realize God. There is no room for a desultory living. Life has a great divine purpose. It is to overcome all limitations by realizing the divinity within.
Every path to God is true. Everyone has to chose a path to God according to one's own temperament. There is no conflict between various religions.
If you follow these principles, you are a Hindu. It does not matter whether you worship Krishna or Christ or Allah. If you believe in the inherent equality and divinity of the universe, strive to realize the divinity in yourself and accept the plurality of religion, you are a Hindu.
As Hinduism considers all religions as equally valid paths to God, there is no concept of conversion. Hinduism is a sort of meta-religion. It encompasses the basic principles of religion. It helps you to fix your religious goal, choose any religion of your choice and encourages you to follow the religion with all sincerity. Understand the aim of religion. Weigh the pros and cons of various ways of worship available in world. Choose one of your liking and follow it with full zeal. In all probability, you are already worshipping God in your favorite way. Hinduism helps you to follow you religion more knowingly, with a clearer understanding of the goal and with more zeal.
2.4. Should I know Sanskrit to be a Hindu ?
No. Almost all the scriptures and traditional prayers are in Sanskrit. So if you want to go to the source, you need to know Sanskrit. But to follow the religion, you need not know Sanskrit. There are good translations of almost all the major texts in several other languages, from which you can derive benefit. What is important is to understand and follow the principles. But, if you want to understand and appreciate Indian culture, a knowledge of Sanskrit and other Indian languages is necessary. Much of the culture is embedded in the word formations and connotations. Also, you cannot have a direct first-hand experience of the Indian culture without the knowledge of the language in which the culture is implemented.
2.5. Does Hinduism consider monastic life better ?
No. During the course of Indian history, late Buddhism brought in this idea, which led to the downfall of India. The genius of Sri Sankara converted this downfall into the "downfall of Buddhism in India" and put the society back onto the progressive track. Hinduism considers the householders and monastics as two wings of the bird called society. Whether to chose the life of a householder or a monastic depends on the individual temperament. The aim of life - God realization - can be achieved in both the ways of life. Just as there are various duties to various people in the society, the monastics also have their role and duties. The monks are the repositories of religious knowledge and are teachers of religious life. The respect given to their position is a psychological necessity to derive maximum benefit from their knowledge. Also, they are supposed to expressedly and explicitly follow the virtues like service, sacrifice and nobility which the householders are supposed to implicitly follow. This way they are role models for the rest of the society. But this does not mean that the monatic way of life is better than the householders. The same virtues are expected in both.
2.6.Does Hinduism consider vegetarianism better ?
No. The concept of vegetarianism is recent (less than 2000 years old). The historical accounts recorded in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas depict people as non-vegetarian. Hinduism accepts the law of nature that one life is the food for another. However, Hinduism accepts that just as the mind affects the body (you want to lift your hand and your body does it), the body also affects the mind. The food eaten affects the organization and type of thoughts. For example, eating stolen food has been found to make the mind morally weak. Similarly, different types of food cause different effects in the mind. Non-vegetarian diet has been found to cause a condition called "rajotamas" - a mixture of delusion and hyperactivity. This is an undesirable condition for aspirants of God. A vegetarian diet aids control of the mind and religious study. For this reason, modern Hinduism advises a vegetarian diet to most spiritual aspirants.
2.7.What does Hinduism say about polygamy, homosexuality, etc ?
The aim of life according to Hinduism is God realization. Social issues like polygamy are outside the jurisdiction of religion. If the question is "What does Hinduism say about lust?", then there is a prompt and vehement reply that "Lust has to be overcome." Social rules will change with time and place. Some societies consider polygamy as normal. There are Hindu societies in North Eastern India, which consider polyandry as normal and anyone opposing it as "selfish". Nevertheless, they are good Hindu societies. Majority of today's Indian society is monogamous. A few years before polygamy was accepted. It may again get accepted after a few centuries. Hinduism is not bothered about these. It has higher goals for life.
2.8.What is the Hindu concept of life after death ? What is the Hindu concept of Heaven and Hell ?
Hinduism believes in the law of cause and effect applied to all spheres of phenomenal existence. Since different people are born to different people in different environments (which is an observed effect), a previous cause has to be assumed. The only logical explanation possible is a previous life very similar to this. And by the same argument, since different people are involved in different thoughts and activities till death, the effects of these must occur in an after-life very similar to this. Hinduism says that everyone is responsible for his life. There are no extraneous causes for one's condition in life. If a person is facing hardship in life it has to be due to his earlier thoughts and actions in this or previous life.
2.9.Is there the concept similar to Satan in Hinduism ?
Hinduism does not have a concept similar to Satan. Hinduism says that all that happens are due to the power and will of God. Whatever happens is neither good nor bad. It is human beings who attribute those ideas to events. We call something which we think will cause intended effects, within the purview of our understanding, as good. All understanding is limited and hence the very concept of good and evil is relative and depends on time, place and people involved.
2.10.Is there a concept of sin in Hinduism ?
No. Hinduism says that one has to reap what he sows - good or bad. If a person makes mistakes, he will have to face the consequences. If a person does good, he will enjoy its fruits. Hinduism opens the door fully for a person to form his own life and future. No one is eternally glorified or eternally doomed. It accepts that people make mistakes whose logical effects have to be faced, its lessons need to be learnt, and life has to continue with more knowledge and understanding.
2.11.Do all Hindu saints perform miracles ?
No. Miracles are considered mere dynamics of Nature which are not understood fully by the observer. Miracles are nothing different from regular events. If something is not expected, it is a miracle. They are not worth to be sought after. The goal of Hinduism is to realize God. Miracles are considered objectionable hinderances towards that goal. No teacher of Hinduism advises his disciples to attain the power to do miracles. Seeking after miracles is considered a sign of spiritual weakness.
2.12.Does astrology come under Hinduism ?
No. Astrology is just another science like agriculture or metallurgy. It is well developed in India, just like religion and philosophy. The theory behind astrology is based on the Indian view that everything in this universe originate from one source. So by a reasonable understanding of the dynamics in one part of the universe, one can expect a particular pattern of events in another part of the universe. Beyond that there is no relationship.
2.13.There are many contradictions in Hinduism. For example, Rama is hailed for monogamy, but Krishna has many wives.
This again is the result of applying today's social norms like monogamy to people who lived a few thousand years back. Rama is hailed for monogamy today. But during his time, polygamy was not considered objectionable.
2.14.What is the Hindu concept of creation ?
Hinduism considers that the world is a manifestation of God. There is no concept of Creation and a Creator. The world came from God, exists in God and will return back to God, just like waves arise from the ocean, exist in the ocean and subside back into the ocean. And this happens in cycles, again and again.
As there is no concept of creation in the literal sense, there can be no concept of destruction also. There is a concept of unmanifestation. God withdraws Himself and creation vanishes. Manifestion is instantaneous, if the word can be used, because even time is a part of manifestation only. Similarly unmanifestation is also instantaneous. It is like a dream. How was the world in your dream created ? The dream world, including its own timeline were created instantly. When you wake up, the world just vanishes. Same is the case with this world too.
There are graphic and poetic descriptions about God creating the world, maintaining it and then destroying it. These are only figurative to explain the above concept. They should not be taken literally.
2.15.What does Hinduism say about conversion ?
There is no concept of conversion in Hinduism. Hinduism believes in one God. If you read the Bible, you can see expressions like "God of the Egyptians", "God of Israelites", etc. Hinduism does not believe in many Gods like this. Hinduism believes in one God, whom everyone of every religion call by various names and worship in their own way. It is said in the Vedas that "God is one. The wise men call Him by various names." You should note here that the people who call God by various names are called "wise men". In the Bhagavat Gita, it is said that in whatever way a man worships God, God being Omniscient, knows that He is being worshipped and responds to the sincerity of the worshipper. Hinduism accepts diversity of religions and accepts the validity if several paths, and so there is no concept of conversion.
Hinduism cares only about vertical conversion. Hinduism encourages and helps a Christian to be a better Christian and a Muslim to be a better Muslim. Any Hindu saint will ask a Christian to have faith in Christ and go to Church regularly. He will ask a Muslim to have faith in Allah and perform the religious duties ordained in the Koran sincerely. Hinduism does not support horizontal conversion from one faith to another.
Hindus consider claims that "if you do not believe in Christ, you will be doomed" as a disparaging remark on Christ. Christ is a personification of selflessness. His love is unconditional. Putting conditions like this on Him is blasphemy.
2.16.What does Hinduism say about science ?
Science and Hinduism do not contradict. They complement each other. Science and technology cater to the meterial needs of man. But man does not live by bread alone. The psychological, emotional and spiritual needs of man are catered to by arts and religion. They have entirely different domains of operation. So there is no way they can be compared. Both are needed for a balanced life.
2.17.What is Hinduism's stand on human cloning ?
Hinduism considers the cloned persons to be different from each other. Hinduism sees the soul and not the body. Even if the body is cloned, the soul is different. So from the religious point of view, there is absolutely no difference between a normal human being and a cloned human being. Biological issues like dangers of genetic disorders, etc are left to the biologists to discuss.
2.18.What is Hinduism's stand on euthanasia (assisted suicide) ?
According to the Doctrine of Karma, a person cannot escape from his/her Karma by commiting suicide. Whatever has to be faced has to be faced. If one tries to escape from a problem in this birth, it will have to be faced in a higher proportion in a subsequent birth. Also, committing suicide adds a big Karmic burden on the individual.
Coming to Euthanasia, assisting the suffering person by giving moral and other form of support to bear with the difficulties and if possible to alleviate the difficulties is the best thing that his/her well wishers can do. Taking away the life is only postponing the problem. If the suffering person is not a party in the decision, then it is a mere postponement of the manifestation of the Karma for the suffering person. Whereas for the people involved in making the decision, the mental attitude is what counts.
To summarize, in the best case, it does not help anyone in any way.
2.19.What is Hinduism's stand on abortion and contraception ?
Issues like pre-marital and extra-marital sex are social issues. From the religious point of view, uncontrolled lust is harmful for the spiritual development of the individual. Abortion and contraception for reasons like family planning, to avoid an unhealthy child, etc are perfectly acceptable. Even in case of unsocial conception, it is better to abort than to leave an uncared for child who may grow up into an anti-social human being.
2.20.How do Hindus pray ? What is the Hindu prayer ?
The sign of showing respect in India is to join both the palms facing each other vertically. The level of the palms can be at heart, throat, forehead or above the head. At the heart level, it shows an expression of loving devotion. At the throat level, it shows an expression of a servant to the Master. At the forehead level, it shows an expression of respect because of the acknowledgement (by knowledge) of the greatness of God. At the level above the head, it is an expression to tell "Lord, it is You who has become everything in this world. There is nothing in this world but You."
The traditional prayer of the Hindus means this: "Oh Lord, You are the Light of the world. Please enlighten my understanding. Let me see everything in the right light." The prayer does not ask for anything else. This prayer is called the Gayatri. The idea is that we learn from mistakes and suffering in life. It is the hours of sorrow that remind us of God. So merely asking for freedom from misery and suffering may actually stunt our growth. What we need is strength to carry our load. Again, strength without understanding will be more destructive than constructive. Right understanding of the choices and experiences in life will enable us to take the right decisions, give us strength to carry out our plans and the fortitude to face success and failure. So the prayer asks only to "enlighten the understanding". Growth will follow naturally.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the Lord says, "Whoever worships in whatever form, by whatever name, by whatever means, worships Me alone. I am the recepient of all worship. I respond to their worship and strengthen the faith of people in the form and name they worship." Thus, what us needed is sincerity. Form, words, rituals, etc dont really matter. God looks into our hearts. The best prayer that one can offer to God is to tell Him from the heart "I love You".
2.21.Do Hindus say any prayer before eating food ?
Traditional Hindus tell a prayer before food. The prayer means this: "The food is God. The plates, spoon, etc are God. The eater is God. The fire of hunger is God. The act of eating is God." A peculiar prayer!! It implies that I dont eat for my sake. I eat as an activity ordained by Nature. The order of Nature is such that one organism lives at the cost of another. Life to one being is death to another. It is impossible to maintain the life of this body without taking the life of millions of germs, food grains, fruits, leaves, seeds, plants, animals, etc. So the prayer before food implies that life is being offered to life. It is not for mere enjoyment that you eat, but as a necessary action to keep the body alive. This attitude is applicable to almost all actions in life.
Intermediate Level Questions:
3.1. How is man reborn ? Why do bad things happen to good people ?
According to the doctrine of Karma, every situation we face in life is the result of our past aspirations and actions. Actions are mere expressions of aspirations. Also, they are reflective. To put it crudely, if you wish that a dog should get hit, then it sows seed for you to become a dog and get hit. If you wish and do good to others, you will see all good people around you helping you when you are in need.
During the course of our life, we think and do so many things. Every thought and action has to bear fruit. Some of our thoughts and actions may be such that it is not possible for them to bear fruit in this life itself. This necessitates a subsequent life.
Bad things happen even to people who think and do good in life as the result of their thoughts and action in a previous life. So calamities in life should not discourage a person to sever from the path of virtue.
Now the question is, since we think and do things till the last breath, how is it possible to get out of this cycle of birth and death. The answer is that thoughts and actions are binding only when there is a sense of doership. Actions done for the sake of action, without a sense of reward or doership do not bind, and do not force personal effects.
3.2. What is the aim of life ?
The aim of life is to realize the freedom of the Self from all limitations. In reality, the Subject - the real Self - is totally free from the apparent bondage and limitations imposed by the mind. The concept of individuality, world and their interaction are all in the mind only and do not affect the real Subject. When the person realizes this, he is no longer subject to sorrow and other psychological problems and inconveniences. His leads life in a very natural and harmonious manner. The aim of life is to achieve this freedom.
3.3. How do I determine what is right and what is wrong ?
The aim of life is spiritual freedom, which can be perceived in life as psychological freedom. Anything which leads you to more psychological freedom is right. Anything which leads to psychological bondage is wrong. The problem is that psychological bondage creates aberration in perception, which leads to not being able to clearly see which way leads to bondage and which way leads to freedom. In such cases, you may need the guidance of social norms, words of saints and the law. To start with, you should follow the right path as much as visible and possible. As the result your psychological bondages will become weaker. Your vision will become clearer. With this you will be able to make better decisions, which will make the distinction still clearer.
You should also keep in mind that in most cases, right and wrong are relative to the person involved and cannot be judged rightly from the point of view of another person.
3.4. Which is the path better for me - Karma, Bhakti, Jnana or Yoga ?
It depends on your mental temperament. Everyone of us have the abilities to work, to love, to analyze and to cencentrate. One might have more of something that the other. The paths are not contradictory. They aid each other. So you need not worry too much about which path to take. To start with, you can take an integrated approach. Soon a natural shift will come to whatever you are more inclined to. Still it is better to keep some of all the paths to be more balanced. This will lead to better results.
3.5. Who is a Guru ? Is a human Guru really needed ?
A Guru is one who can inspire and instruct you towards God realization. In fact there is only one Guru, who is God Himself. The human Guru is God Himself instructing the disciple. A very advanced aspirant may not need the Guru in a human form. But, in general, a human Guru is needed. The human mind always wants a live example to imitate and a live hero to worship. The human Guru fulfils these psychological requirements and effectively brings about God realization without much difficulty.
3.6. Can I have more than one Guru ? How do I identify my Guru ?
You should have one primary Guru, who is the one who has given you a mantra to chant or a spiritual practice to follow. You can have other holy people who can give you supplementary instructions, but these should never contradict the primary Guru's words. The former is called Diksha Guru and the latter are called Shiksha Gurus. As it is God himself who comes as all Gurus, you should never take lightly the person who has told you explicitly that he is your Guru. If subsequently someone else tells you that you have gone to a wrong Guru and asks you to completely discard the words of the first Guru, ruthlessly discard the words of the second person. Stick to the first Guru and pray to God to clear you off your confusion and guide you. A real Guru always takes you higher based on the past path. He never asks you to discard any faith you have followed before.
In most cases, you do not have to make a real search for the Guru. You need to understand that the aim of life is God realization and try to have the company of holy men and other aspirants as much as possible. In due course of time, you will naturally develop a liking towards one holy person and the person may become your primary Guru. Most of the holy men can quickly see your temperament and tell you if they can be your Guru and if necessary suggest another holy man as a possibility of being your Guru. What is needed is the zeal towards God realization. The rest will follow at the right time. You need not be too anxious about it.
3.7. How do I meet a saint ? What are the formalities involved ? How should I approach him ?
A saint should be approached with reverence and an open mind. Often you would have heard or read several things about the saint before you meet him. Brush everything aside - both the good and bad remarks. Approach with an open mind and reverence as a person who is devoted to the Goal. Most of the saints do not expect any formalities. As a way to express your reverence, you may take some offerings of fruits and flowers to the saint. This is not a barter system or a business. It is just an expression of reverence and love. In most cases, the saint will not give much importance to your offerings. The saint may distribute your offerings to the people there, or keep it for distributing later. Very rarely he may take these for his perusal. If he does so, it is a great previlege to you.
3.8. What is Brahman ? What is my relationship with Brahman ?
Brahman is the term for God in Hinduism. Brahman is the core of your existence. Hinduism defines Brahman as existence, consciousness and bliss - Sat-Chit-Ananda. Do you exist? That existence is a property of the Brahman in you. Are you aware of your existence? That awareness comes from the Brahman in you. Have you felt joy anytime in your life due to any reason? That joy comes from the Brahman in you. This is the definition of Brahman or God given by Hinduism. Brahman is infinite and so perfect.
3.9. If Brahman is infinite, where does the imperfection which we see come from ?
The imperfection is only in the mind. The imperfection is an illusion. We are all perfect. We are in a state of hypnotism that we are not perfect and so we behave imperfectly. It is like a person getting dressed like a beggar to play the role of a beggar in a drama, but getting lost in himself and thinks he is really and beggar and suffers because of that. Hinduism calls us "Children of immortal bliss". We are the children of God and so rightful heirs to his purity, peace and glory.
3.10. What are the defects in man ? What is karma yoga ? How does it take man to perfection ?
Man operates in three basic realms. The gross, subtle and causal. In the gross level, the physical body with its sense organs and organs of action is the field of operation. In the subtle level, the mind with its organs like intellect, memory and the faculty of emotion is the field of operation. The causal level consists of the basic limitation, which makes a person feel an individual existence in relation to the environment.
Defects in these three realms of operation manifest as lust (desire for sensual pleasure and comfort), greed (desire for possessions and human relationship) and ego (desire for fame) respectively. All other defects like anger, jealousy and delusion result from these three basic defects.
These realms can be related to the three Gunas (qualities) of man. Tamas is when the goal of a person is in the physical realm. Rajas is when the goal of a person is in the mental realm. Sattva is when the goal of a person is in the causal realm. When a person goes beyond the three types of defects, he naturally goes beyond the three Gunas. The aim of human life is to overcome these three types of defects, transcend the three Gunas, and thus become perfect.
Karma Yoga defines three practices to free ourselves from these three defects. They are Yagna (activity), Daana (charity) and Tapas (austerity). Yagna helps us to move from Tamas to Rajas. Daana helps us to move from Rajas to Sattva. Tapas helps us to transcend Sattva. Every person has a mixture of all the three Gunas and so we should follow all the three practices.
The desire for physical pleasure is the vestigial remnant of animal nature in us. This has to be countered by Yagna.
Yagna is activity. Whenever there is a choice between action and inaction, we should choose to act. Action is different from reaction. Reaction is blind retort against a change in the environment. Action is a step taken not merely in reply to an environmental change but in view of positive development. Reaction should be avoided. We should always be engaged in some positive developmental activity. Activity is both physical and mental. Activity will free us from desire for physical pleasure. Activity results in wealth, which forms the basis of the next practice - Daana.
Daana is charity. The fruits of action should be put back into the environment (society). Nature follows a strict causal law. We will get what we deserve - nothing more, nothing less. But this is in the long run. There can be apparent violations to this in the short term, which is often misleading. If we take more than what we deserve, later we will have to part with something close to our heart. So, the best course is to give back to Nature anything more than what is barely necessary. This positive step to maintain the balance will free us from unnecessary anxiety and trouble. Charity leads to fame, which forms the basis of the next practice - Tapas.
Tapas is austerity. The doership of Yagna and Daana should be renounced. There is an underlying oneness in Nature. We are all instruments in the hands of God. It is God alone who has become everything and it is God alone who acts through everyone. Man is absolutely powerless before the Will of God. Man's capacity to help is very limited compared to the amount of help needed in the world. It is God who creates the seeds of activity and charity in the minds of men. We are all mere machines in the hands of the Operator. This renunciation of doership takes us beyond the three Gunas, which is the aim of human life.
Thus Karma Yoga takes us from wherever we are to the highest goal.
3.11. Why should one realize God ?
Most of the Upanisads start with one or many of the three questions:
Can we have eternal life?
What is that, knowing which, everything is known?
Can we be free from misery?
These three are the fundamental questions of mankind anywhere in the world in any age. The student starts with concepts like life, happiness (or the lack of it - ie. misery) and knowledge, which are cannotations of the limited mind. But, the answer to the questions can be found only beyond the mind. That is where philosophy ends and religion starts. The questions are posed by an enquiring mind under the auspices of philosophy, whereas the answers are given by a person who has had an experience beyond the mind under the auspices of religion. Note that this distinction is made only in Western culture. Indian culture does not make any distinction between philosophy and religion. Both are complementary and fulfil each other.
The question "Why" is always a more deeper one than "What" or "How". Take any subject and put the question "Why" in any form, like "Why does this happen?", "Why should I do this?", etc Apply the same question to the answer. Repeat this again and again. Invariably you will land up with either "Why should I exist?" or "Why should I be happy?" or "Why should I know?". Thus, existence, happiness and knowledge are the three most fundamental quests and urges of mankind.
Urge to Exist
Urge to Know
Urge to Be happy
These three urges are incompletely, temporarily and most of the times illusorily satisfied by the various pursuits and achievements of life. Thus, every activity is an urge to fulfil one or more of these three. The solution given by religion has its basis beyond the mind, and completely satisfies all the three urges. It is important to note that only the basis of the solution is beyond the mind, but it effect is in the mind too. Otherwise, we will be solving a wrong problem. All our bondage is mental and is due to a state of dissatisfaction of these urges. When the urges are satisfied fully, the mind is naturally free from all bondages. This is called Mukti or Freedom.
Thus, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not, the aim of all pursuits and activites is towards Mukti or Freedom.
Now, let us go one more step ahead and put a final "Why?" to this urge itself. "Why these urges?" The answer given by the Indian scriptures is "Because that is the natural state." Our natural state is to have the three urges fully satisfied. The mind is under a state of delusion that they are not satisfied. The mind is under a hypnotic spell of dissatisfaction. The urge is merely the eagerness to return back to the natural state. When the mind gets dehypnotized, it gets back its natural state and that is Mukti. A dehypnotized mind clearly reflects the true nature, which is called Self. The Hindu scriptures describe the nature of the Self as Sat (Existence), Chit (Consciousness) and Ananda (Happiness).
3.12. Why is there evil in the world ? Why is the world far from being perfect ?
The problem is in our expectation that the world should be free from evil and misery. Why should it be so? We assume that a world with a mixture of good and evil is imperfect. This assumption arises from our tendency to strive towards joy and avoid sorrow. We have taken the aim of our life to be happiness. When this is our aim, naturally a world which has a mixture of joy and sorrow, good and evil appears imperfect to us.
The aim of life is not happiness and not even virtue. Aim of life is wisdom. Misery and evil make us work towards their alleviation. This work gives us experience. We face joy and sorrow. We face success and failure. We face hopes and disappointments. This makes us think. We start seeking a general solution to this problem. Thus experience forms the foundation of our philosophical contemplation. This struggle towards understanding the Truth eventually leads to an intutive understanding. This wisdom is the aim of life.
Thus, without this mixture of good and evil in the world, no one can attain the ultimate aim of life. Thus, if we consider wisdom as the aim of life, we do not find this world imperfect. We find that the world has the right setup for every individual to attain this aim of life. There cannot be a more perfect world !!
Advanced Level Questions:
4.1. What is Brahman ? What is Maya ? What is the nature of this world ? What is Nirvikalpa Samadhi ?
Warning: The presentation below gives an entirely different world view. Though I have tried to present it as clearly as possible, it is prone to be misunderstood. The idea may be revolting to your current understanding of the world. You are free to write to me to discuss the presentation below. My email address is at the bottom of this page.
Let us take the sun. It emits light. Assume that it does not emit light. It emits heat. Assume that heat is also not there. It has a gravitational field. Assume that that is also not there. It has a mass. Assume that mass is also not there. It has a form and occupies space. Assume that that is also not there. What is left? We have removed everything by which the sun can interact with our senses and various scientific instruments which basically extend our senses. Still the sun is there in our minds. Assume that everyone forgets about the sun. Now, in the words of Indian philosophy, we have removed the form (sense interactions) and name (mental image) of the sun. In short, we have removed all concepts of the sun. This does not mean that we have removed the sun. There is two more factors which remain. One is called "limitation". Still we distinguish the sun from other things. The other is called "existence". The existence of an object is independant of its name, form and limitation. Now let us remove the limitation. Now it is pure existence. Now there is no difference between the sun and any other object. So at the existential plane, there is only one that exists. There cannot be two. The concept of two comes only by the introduction of a factor called limitation. This One is called Brahman. The only attribute it has is that it exists. Thus we say that everything is Brahman. As there is no limitation, we say it is infinite. This gives us an idea of Brahman.
Now, let us see where do the other things come from. The first thing to come is limitation. How does this arise? We say Brahman is aware of itself. This creates a duality in the Whole. We cannot say why this arises. This limitation aspect of Brahman is called Maya. Brahman does not change. As Brahman has only existence as its attribute, the only way it can change is not become non-existent, which contradicts itself. So Brahman cannot change. So what is that which changes ? Nothing. So we say that the change is only an appearance. Once we assume that duality has arisen, then we have to see how the two parts interact. One part takes the role of the perciever and the other part takes the role of the percieved. Just as a person creates worlds when he day-dreams, the world with all its diversity is created. The mind arises as a means to percieve. "Brahman sees itself as the world." says Yoga Vasishta. A concept of "I am so and so." arises and we get entangled in what is percieved and forget the true nature.
With this background, what is the nature of the world ? It is only in the mind of the perciever. Who is the perciever ? "I" is the perciever. It is just like a dream. Dream starts abruptly and ends abruptly. A world is created in a moment where you are the daughter of so and so, born in some city, aged a number of years, with a few faculties and skills, etc. You do something in the dream and suddenly the dream ends abruptly, the dream world vanishes and another dream starts. This world is similar. It comes into perception suddenly, occupies the mind for a while and goes out of perception as suddenly as it came. Birth, death, etc are all mere concepts. As every dream world has its own timescale, every world has its own timescale. Just as one cannot say how long a dream will be in the mind, no one can say how long this world be in the mind. Just as you do not remember the incidents in one dream in another, you do not remember the details of one world in another. The appearance of a world in the mind is called birth and the disappearance of a world is called death. Karma (fruits of thought, word and deed) and Samskara (tendencies formed) are carried across. If you wish that you want to become a doctor, it will create a Karma and to satisfy it, a world will appear in your mind where you are a doctor. This happens just as a person who strongly desires to become a doctor gets dreams in which he is a doctor.
There is no difference between the waking state and the dream state. You see one world when you are awake. You "dream" into another world. Then you "wake up" into another world. It is pre-filled memory which makes you feel a continuity. Waking, sleeping, dreaming, etc are all concepts in the mind. The "present" is the most real of all these conceptual worlds. Why are the worlds created ? Because of Karma and Samskara. It is desire which creates these worlds. If a person is desireless, then there is no reason why the worlds should appear. There is no birth and no death. This is the state of Nirvikalpa Samaadhi.
Even before that, when a person fully understands this and is fully convinced, he sees the Brahman underlying this world. He is able to see through the names, forms and limitation and is able to see the Reality. Though the mind and the world have not vanished altogether, the person has seen the Truth. This brings about a profound change in the attitude of the person. Slowly desires die a natural death. There comes a time when they have totally died off and the world vanishes for the last time. He reaches the state of Nirvikalpa Samaadhi. What happens after that cannot be described.
Now what about the concepts of God, Guru, etc ? They all hold good. It is like a person in your dream comes and tell you that you are dreaming and asks you to wake up to the reality. There is no other way of a dreaming person to know that he is dreaming. It is Grace that appears in the form of scriptures, Guru, etc to indicate this to us. God is the name we give to a person who knows the truth. The knower of truth knows himself as the Truth itself. So the knower of truth is Truth itself. The various attributes we ascribe to God helps us to slowly realize the Truth.
What about the various forms of God, lokas like Vaikunta, etc ? They are all as real as this world. If you accept the world before your eyes, you should accept all these also.
All this happens without any real change in Brahman. The change is only an appearance. Why does this happen ? There can be no proper answer to this. We may dismiss the question by saying, "It is all a game", "Just to enjoy", "Just for fun", etc, but there are not real answers. The most convincing answer (to me) is "It is natural to happen like this". We do not ask "Why should the fire be hot?" It is similar to that.
Now the question is "What should a person do ?". Just because the world is unreal, do we idle away ? The answer is "The world is as unreal as your body and your hunger. If you can say "I will not eat because my hunger is unreal." then he can idle. One has to do whatever is expected in the situation he is in. But one should not get attached to the results or doership.
4.2. What is the relationship between Maya and the Brahman ? Does Maya 'exist' ?
If you accept the existence of mind, you cannot negate Maya. Mind is just another name of Maya. What is Maya in the cosmic level is seen as mind in the individual level. Brahman and Atman are names given to the same Reality at the cosmic and individual level. The intermediaries are Maya and Mind. The illusive objects percieved are the World (Jagat) and Personality (Jiva). Do not be to much distracted by the terms. There is a heavy loss of terms here, especially because we are using English. The same concept here will be named differently elsewhere.
Theoretically speaking, it is possible for Brahman to exist without being aware of itself. All concepts and discussion about Brahman are by the mind, which exists only when Brahman is aware of itself. So, there is no way in which the mind can even get an inkling of a state when Brahman is not aware of itself. So such a state is beyond description of the mind. So one school of thought is to say Brahman cannot be without being aware of itself. This is to say that Brahman and Maya cannot be separated. This is reflected in the common paralance as "Without Sakti there is no Siva; without Siva there is no Sakti." This is to say that Existence (Siva or Brahman) and Manifestation (Sakti or Maya) cannot be separated. This is the only conclusion any mental process can arrive at. So from this point of view, I agree that Manifestation is also an attribute of Brahman. But the mind has the capacity of extrapolation. By extrapolation, the mind can intellectually imagine a state where Manifestation is not there. When you extrapolate thus, you are required to explain how Manifestation arises. This again is not possible for the mind. It is like a doctor being the gynaecologist to her grandmother during her mother's birth, which is not logical. This has been explained with so many analogies. Sri Ramakrishna says, "A salt doll went to measure the depth of the ocean, but nothing was left to tell how deep the ocean was." He says this is what happens when a person enters Nirvikalpa Samadhi. From all these, we can assume that such Brahman can be there without Manifestation, but it cannot be described or discussed by the mind.
4.3. What is the use of all this theory ?
All this ultimately tells you three things:
The world is only a creation of the mind.
And so is the individuality.
Brahman alone is real, which appears as all these.
From this you need to draw a practical philosophy of living. Otherwise it serves no purpose. This practical philosophy can be based on Jnana or Bhakti, both are the same. Jnana culminates in Bhakti and Bhakti culminates in Jnana.
Basically do all your duties, but be unattached. An easy way to do this is to surrender to God. It is God who has become everything and everything happens by his wish. So everything will be for your good in the long run. Whereever the Lord places you, do whatever is expected of you and do not worry about the results and do not be attached to the doership. Every work is God's work. You are not indispensable. You only a medium through which God gets work done. It is ultimately He doing the work. Take whatever results that come as His prasad. Do not have preferences. If you are given a choice exercise it intelligently, but if you are not given a choice, accept whatever you get. Forget that you are interacting with the world. You are really interacting with God in various forms and roles. Approaching the world with this attitude will not bind you. Also do not take more than you need from the world. The world may thrust wealth in your hand. It is really the Lord's wealth. It has been given to you for proper disimbursement. Look upon yourself as a manager, while the wealth really belongs to God. Put the Lord in the position of an Employer and do every work as an offering to Him. Do not assume ownership of any possessions. Once you start doing this, all the details of this path will fall in their place. The path will become clear as you walk along it with the lantern of Faith in your hands. There is nothing to be anxious about. You have the zeal. You add faith to it. This chemistry will work wonders.
From the point of view of Jnana, we say everything happens by coincidence. The concept of cause and effect is only in the mind. So it is not proper to expect some results for our work. That does not mean we should be idle. We should merely rise up to every situation we face. When everything is coincidental, there is no concept of destiny or freewill. It is a state beyond both. With this attitude to total detachment from the fruits of work and from the sense of doership, live in the world naturally. Every occasion arises, exists and subsides in your mind. There is nothing external. The real "I" is both all inclusive and transcendent of all these. Be a mere witness.
Though both the paths sound different, essentially they are the same. A bhakta says "everything is God". A jnani says "everything is I". The bhakta says "everything happens by the will of God". The jnani says "everything happens by mere coincidence". Both mean the same - "I am not the doer".
There is a danger in accepting this state prematurely. There are two stages to this. The first is surrender of fruits of action. The second is surrender of doership. The second can be taken only after the first is perfected. Otherwise it will be a mere escape route. First you have to learn to accept whatever that comes, irrespective of your efforts. Not a thought of dissatisfaction should arise in your mind. Only when this is achieved, you are ready for the second stage. Till then, you have to take responsibility to your actions.
What is the result of this? Peace of mind. Unalloyed joy. Unshakable bliss. Nothing in the world can disturb you. Nothing can make you sad. Ultimate and permanent freedom from all anxiety and sorrow. In one word - "FREEDOM". This is called Jivanmukti. This is the goal of human life.
4.4. Is celibacy essential for spiritual progress ?
As long as the mind dwells in the plane of the body and sense pleasures, it cannot think of subtle things. Sex is not a physical need of the body like food and water. It is a mere psychological need and in fact a remnant of the animal qualities of man. Just as the body has a few vestigial organs, sex is a vestigial faculty of the human mind. When animals have only physical means of reproduction, man has higher means. When a teacher teaches a student and passes on knowledge, the student becomes partly a mental progeny of the teacher. When an artist draws a picture which represents his thoughts, it becomes a means of his mental proliferation. Every work of creativity leaves a mark about the person in the lives and minds of generations to come. This is a unique way of reproduction endowed to man. An animal physically attains immortality through its offsprings. A man attains mental immortality through his deeds. Both these are imperfect means to immortality. A still higher means is religion. By realizing the immortality of the Self, real and absolute immortality is reached. Physical and mental means of proliferation are crude approximations of this grand phenomenon of Self realization.
By freeing the mind from the psychological bondage of sex, the animal becomes a man. This is an essential step to Self realization. By freeing the mind from the idea of sex, the mind becomes capabale of thinking at a subtler plane. Self realization is the pinnacle of subtlity of the mind. So celibacy is essential to spiritual life beyond a certain stage. In the early stages, an aspirant may be able to get away with the mind still dwelling in sex, but in course of time, he will hit a wall. The mind will not be able to proceed further due to its inability to grasp subtler ideas. To cross that threshold, celibacy is a necessity.
5.1. Who asked the questions in this FAQ ?
These questions have been asked, mostly by email, by people from varied backgrounds, with varied intentions. Mainly there are two types of questioners.
People who are interested in Hinduism in an academic sense. They do not have any intentions of applying the principles or willing to try the practices in the near future. Theirs is a mere intellectual curiosity.
The second class of questioners are more serious about Hinduism. Some were already practising Hinduism and were facing some practical problems or were not able to get the correct attitude to face some situations. Some were trying to find a meaning to their life in a rational manner and were facing some questions for which they are not able to arrive at a satisfying answer. Some were trying to approach life very emotionally and were at a loss of any grip to hold on to with faith. Some were practising some other path or religion and were not able to find a convincing solution to some problems from others following their path. In these cases, Hinduism was able to cater to their needs, without disturbing their faith in their own path or religion.