This site aims to explore various facets of SanAtana Dharma, as espoused by our sages and seers, across different epochs of time and different regions of the Indian sub-continent, through the medium of short stories.
The author, Srividya Kannan Ramachandran, lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Recently, many people have asked me about the basic tenets of Hinduism and about how to understand the underlying concepts of a faith as diverse as Hinduism. I knew that if I tried to explain this with my limited knowledge, I would never do justice to the great SanAtana Dharma. But recently, I came across the wonderful book “Shakti and Shakta” by Sir John Woodroffe, whose first chapter captures in entirety what the basic philosophy of Hinduism is.
Indian Religion As Bharata Dharma
A FRIEND of mine who read the first edition of this book suggested that I should add to it an opening Chapter, stating the most general and fundamental principles of the subject as a guide to the understanding of what follows, together with an outline of the latter in which the relation of the several parts should be shown. I have not at present the time, nor in the present book the space, to give effect to my friend’s wishes in the way I would have desired, but will not altogether neglect them.
To the Western, Indian Religion generally seems a “jungle” of contradictory beliefs amidst which he is lost. Only those who have understood its main principles can show them the path.
It has been asserted that there is no such thing as Indian Religion, though there are many Religions in India. This is not so. As I have already pointed out (Is India Civilized?) there is a common Indian religion which I have called Bharata Dharma, which is an Aryan religion (Aryadharma) held by all Aryas whether Brahmanic, Buddhist or Jaina. These are the three main divisions of the Bharata Dharma. I exclude other religions in India, namely, the Semitic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Not that all these are purely Semitic. Christianity became in part Aryanized when it was adopted by the Western Aryans, as also happened with Islam when accepted by such Eastern Aryans as the Persians and the Aryanized peoples of India. Thus Sufism is either a form of Vedanta or indebted to it.
The general Indian Religion or Bharata Dharma holds that the world is an Order or Cosmos. It is not a Chaos of things and beings thrown haphazard together, in which there is no binding relation or rule. The world-order is Dharma, which is that by which the universe is upheld (Dharyate). Without Dharma it would fall to pieces and dissolve into nothingness. But this is not possible, for though there is Disorder (Adharma), it exists, and can exist only locally, for a time, and in particular parts of the whole. Order however will and, from the nature of things, must ultimately assert itself. And this is the meaning of the saying that Righteousness or Dharma prevails. This is in the nature of things, for Dharma is not a law imposed from without by the Ukase of some Celestial Czar. It is the nature of things; that which constitutes them what they are (Svalakshana-dharanat Dharma). It is the expression of their true being and can only cease to be, when they themselves cease to be. Belief in righteousness is then in something not arbitrarily imposed from without by a Lawgiver, but belief in a Principle of Reason which all men can recognize for themselves if they will. Again Dharma is not only the law of each being but necessarily also of the whole, and expresses the right relations of each part to the whole. This whole is again harmonious, otherwise it would dissolve. The principle which holds it together as one mighty organism is Dharma. The particular Dharma calls for such recognition and action in accordance therewith. Religion, therefore, which etymologically means that which obliges or binds together, is in its most fundamental sense the recognition that the world is an Order, of which each man, being, and thing, is a part, and to which each man stands in a definite, established relation; together with action based on, and consistent with, such recognition, and in harmony with the whole cosmic activity. Whilst therefore the religious man is he who feels that he is bound in varying ways to all being, the irreligious man is he who egoistically considers everything from the standpoint of his limited self and its interests, without regard for his fellows, or the world at large. The essentially irreligious character of such an attitude is shown by the fact that, if it were adopted by all, it would lead to the negation of Cosmos, that is Chaos. Therefore all Religions are agreed in the essentials of morality and hold that selfishness, in its widest sense, is the root of all sin (Adharma). Morality is thus the true nature of man. The general Dharma (Samanya Dharma) is the universal law governing all, just as the particular Dharma (Vishesha Dharma) varies with, and is peculiar to, each class of being. It follows from what is above stated that disharmony is suffering. This is an obvious fact. Wrong conduct is productive of ill, as right conduct is productive of good. As a man sows, so he will reap. There is an Immanent Justice. But these results, though they may appear at once, do not always do so. The fruit of no action is lost. It must, according to the law of causality, which is a law of reason, bear effect. If its author does not suffer for it here and now in the present life, he will do so in some future one. Birth and death mean the creation and destruction of bodies. The spirits so embodied are infinite in number and eternal. The material universe comes and goes. This in Brahmanism has been said (see Sanatana Vaidika Dharma by Bhagavan Das) to be “the Systole and Diastole of the one Universal Heart, Itself at rest — the moveless play of Consciousness”. The appearance and disappearance of the Universe is the nature or Svabhava of That which it ultimately is. Its immediate cause is Desire, which Buddhism calls Trishna — or Thirst, that is desire or thirst for world-enjoyment in the universe of form. Action (Karma) is prompted by desire and breeds again desire. This action may be good (Dharma) or bad (Adharma) leading to enjoyment or suffering. Each embodied soul (Jivatma) will be reborn and reborn into the world until it is freed from all desire. This involves the doctrine of Re-incarnation. These multiple births and deaths in the transmigratory worlds are called Samsara or Wandering. The world is a Dvandva, that is, a composite of happiness and suffering. Happiness of a transitory kind may be had therein by adherence to Dharma in following Kama (desire) and Artha (the means) by which lawful desires may be given effect. These constitute what Brahmanism calls the Trivarga of the Purushartha, or three aims of sentient being. But just as desire leads to manifestation in form, so desirelessness leads away from it. Those who reach this state seek Moksha or Nirvana (the fourth Purushartha), which is a state of Bliss beyond the worlds of changing forms. For there is a rest from suffering which Desire (together with a natural tendency to pass its right limits) brings upon men. They must, therefore, either live with desire in harmony with the universal order, or if desireless, they may (for each is master of his future) pass beyond the manifest and become That which is Moksha or Nirvana. Religion, and therefore true civilization, consists in the upholding of Dharma as the individual and general good, and the fostering of spiritual progress, so that, with justice to all beings, true happiness, which is the immediate and ultimate end of all Humanity, and indeed of all being, may be attained.
Anyone who holds these beliefs follows the Bharata Dharma or common principles of all Aryan beliefs. Thus as regards God we may either deny His existence (Atheism) or affirm it (Theism) or say we have no sufficient proof one way or another (Agnosticism). It is possible to accept the concept of an eternal Law (Dharma) and its sanctions in a self-governed universe without belief in a personal Lord (Ishvara). So Samkhya, which proceeds on intellectual proof only, doe not deny God but holds that the being of a Lord is “not proved”.
There are then based on this common foundation three main religions, Brahmanism, Buddhism and Jainism. Of the second, a great and universal faith, it has been said that, with each fresh acquirement of knowledge, it seems more difficult to separate it from the Hinduism out of which it emerged and into which (in Northern Buddhism) it relapsed. This is of course not to say that there are no differences between the two, but that they share in certain general and common principles as their base. Brahmanism, of which the Shakta doctrine and practice is a particular form, accepts Veda as its ultimate authority. By this, in its form as the four Vedas, is revealed the doctrine of the Brahman, the “All-pervader,” the infinite Substance which is in Itself (Svarupa) Consciousness (Caitanya or Cit), from Which comes creation, maintenance and withdrawal, commonly called destruction (though man, not God, destroys), and Which in Its relation to the universe which the Brahman controls is known as Ishvara, the Ruling Lord or Personal God. Veda both as spiritual experience and the word “which is heard” (Shruti) is the warrant for this. But Shruti, as the ultimate authority, has received various interpretations and so we find in Brahmanism, as in Christianity, differing schools and sects adopting various interpretations of the Revealed Word. Veda says: “All this (that is, the Universe) is Brahman.” All are agreed that Brahman or Spirit is relatively to us, Being (Sat), Consciousness (Cit) and Bliss (Ananda). It is Saccidananda. But in what sense is “This” (Idam) Brahman? The Monistic interpretation (Advaitavada), as given for instance by the great scholastic Shamkaracarya, is that there is a complete identity in essence of both. There is one Spirit (Atma) with two aspects: as transcendent supreme (Paramatma), and as immanent and embodied (Jivatma). The two are at base one when we eliminate Avidya in the form of mind and body. According to the qualified Monism (Vishishtadvaita) of the great scholastic Ramanuja, “This” is Brahman in the sense that it is the body of the Brahman, just as we distinguish our body from our inner self. According to the Dualists (Dvaitavada) the saying is interpreted in terms of nearness (Samipya) and likeness (Sadrishya) for, though God and man are distinct, the former so pervades and is so inextricably involved in the universe as creator and maintainer, that the latter, in this sense, seems to be Brahman through proximity.
Then again there is the Shuddhadvaita of that branch of the Agamas which is called Shaivasiddhanta, the Vaishnava Pañcaratra doctrine, the Advaita of the Kashmirian Shaiva-gama (Trika), the followers of which, though Advaitins, have very subtly criticized Shamkara’s doctrine on several points. Difference of views upon this question and that of the nature of Maya, which the world is said to be, necessarily implies difference upon other matters of doctrine. Then there are, with many resemblances, some differences in ritual practice. Thus it comes about that Brahmanism includes many divisions of worshippers calling themselves by different names. There are Smartas who are the present day representatives of the old Vaidik doctrine and ritual practice, and on the other hand a number of divisions of worshippers calling themselves Shaktas, Shaivas, Vaishnavas and so forth with sub-divisions of these. It is not possible to make hard and fast distinctions between the sects which share much in common and have been influenced one by the other. Indeed the universality of much of religious doctrine and practice is an established fact. What exists in India as elsewhere to-day has in other times and places been in varying degrees anticipated. “In Religion,” it has been said (Gnostics and 1heir Remains, viii) “there is no new thing. The same ideas are worked up over and over again.” In India as elsewhere, but particularly in India where religious activity has been syncretistic rather than by way of supersession, there is much which is common to all sects and more again which is common between particular groups of sects. These latter are governed in general, that is, in their older forms, by the Agamas or Tantra-Shastras, which, at any rate to-day and for centuries past (whatever may have been their origin), admit the authority of the Vedas and recognize other Scriptures. … “