Best Guide to Eastern Philosophy and Religionby Diane Morgan
The Best Guide to Eastern Philosophy & Religion provides a thorough discussion of the most widely practices belief systems of the East. Author Diane Morgan understands how to direct the materialistic, linear way of Western thinking toward a comprehension of the cyclical, metaphysical essence of Eastern philosophy. With an emphasis on the tenets and customs/i>
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The Best Guide to Eastern Philosophy & Religion provides a thorough discussion of the most widely practices belief systems of the East. Author Diane Morgan understands how to direct the materialistic, linear way of Western thinking toward a comprehension of the cyclical, metaphysical essence of Eastern philosophy. With an emphasis on the tenets and customs that Wester seekers find most compelling, this text is accessible to the novice yet sophisticated enough for the experienced reader.
Inside, you'll find complete coverage of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, as well as the less-widely practiced faiths of Shintoism, Jainism, Sikhism, and Zoroastrainism. Learn the fundamentals of the tantric path to liberation and the relationship between sex and seeking. Discover the true meaning of Feng Shui, the philosophical underpinnings of Hatha Yoga and Taoist connection to the martial art of Tai chi chuan. And if you've ever wondered: what is the sound of one hand clapping?. this book will get you started on finding that answer.
The Eastern traditions, with their emphasis on harmony and oneness, have much to offer us in our hectic, demanding lives. For a comprehensive, entertaining exploration of the beliefs of Asia, The Best Guide to Eastern Philosophy & Religion is the essential manual for the seeker in all of us.
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The Best Guide to Eastern Philosophy and Religion
By Diane Morgan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Renaissance Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
A Landscape, a People, and a Faith
IN THIS CHAPTER
Basics of Hindu faith
The Indus Valley civilization and the Aryan invaders
Defining Hinduism is difficult. (One source I consulted passed the buck by saying that Hinduism is a religion practiced by Indians who aren't Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, or Christian.) To complicate matters even further, Hinduism varies greatly from place to place. A Hindu from Bali practices a very different sort of Hinduism than do Hindus from India, and Hindu customs in northern India differ markedly from those in the south.
The word Hindu has no ideological connotation like Protestant, Unitarian, Baptist, or Seventh Day Adventist. Hinduism isn't named after a founder like Christianity, Buddhism, or Confucianism. It doesn't assign itself a name intended to describe what its adherents believe about it, like Islam, which means "surrender," or "Catholic," which means "universal." Only Judaism defines itself precisely the way Hinduism is defined by Westerners. Just as Judaism is the religion of the Jews, so Hinduism is the religion of the Hindus.
But Hindus themselves don't call their religion "Hinduism." They may use the word darshana, which is often translated as "philosophy," but really means "seeing" or "experience." Or they may refer to their faith as the Sanatana Dharma, the eternal way of truth.
One thing that separates so-called "axial religions" like Hinduism, Christianity, and Buddhism, from aboriginal, traditional ones is their attitude toward life. Traditional African, Australian, Native American, and early European religions celebrate life for what it is. Beginning several thousand years ago, however, someone came up with the idea that human existence was flawed in some basic, essential way. In other words, something was wrong with the way life was lived. The idea of "sin" developed and troubling questions emerged. Why did some people suffer, through apparently no fault of their own? Why do evil people prosper? What happens after death or before birth? What is the relationship, if any, between gods and human beings? Is there a connection between worship and ethics?
BASIC HINDU BELIEFS
"'Ekam sad vipra behudha vadanti.' Truth is one, but it is called by different names."
— The Vedas
Although Hindus don't have a creed to adhere to, or a catechism to follow, nearly all Hindus assent to certain general principles or articles of faith. (There's no penalty if you don't agree with all of them, although people might look at you funny.) Here's the short list of what Hindus believe:
They believe that their sacred scriptures, the Vedas, are divine works that manifest the glorious primal energy of both creation and eternity.
They believe in a supreme Ground of Being, the Brahman, who is uncreated, unborn, changeless, incorruptible, and utterly holy.
They believe that each person has divinity within him or her.
They believe that the universe exists through endless cycles, and that individual souls pass through incarnation after incarnation.
They believe in karma (that our lot in this life is a result of past deeds in other incarnations, and that our future happiness depends on how we live here and now).
They believe that all life is holy and that eventually every single soul, including the souls of animals, will achieve liberation, peace, and freedom in the knowledge of the Brahman.
They believe that all religions, rightly understood, can bring their followers to salvation.
As alien as these beliefs seem, it's this last point that is the real stumbling block to outsiders. Our Western passion for categorizing has made religious truth seem like an exclusive property. If one path is "true," according to Occidental reasoning, then other paths must be "false" to the degree they diverge from the true path. Hindus have a different view. Only Westerners, with their "one life to live" attitude, get hung up on taking the "right road." "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler," lamented Robert Frost.
Hindus aren't troubled by divergent paths. Unlike Frost, they have time to take as many roads as they choose, if not in this life, then in another one. And as we shall see, time doesn't matter much for Hindus — they know there's a lot of it.
The Hindu Concept of Time
To understand Hinduism it is essential to understand the Hindu notion of time. Here's a famous parable. Once every thousand years a raven flies over the top of the world's highest peak, carrying in his bill a silken, fringed scarf. The mountain is so high that the raven can just barely make the pass, especially because he's dragging a scarf, no easy task even for a pretty strong raven. (This is probably why he attempts it only once in a thousand years.) At any rate, as the raven flies over the summit, the very edge of one fringe brushes the top of the mountain. When the entire mountain has been worn away by the fringe of the passing scarf, one moment in the life of this cosmos has passed.
THE TRUE REALITY
Hinduism attempts to release us from the false reality into the true reality. This is a tough job, because there's plenty of pleasure and satisfaction in this illusory world: food, sex, wealth, fame, social action, or personal achievements. None of these are bad things; but they don't last. And what doesn't last can't ultimately be real. The pleasures of this life are also habit-forming; they keep us coming back to them over and over, lifetime after lifetime. And habits, no matter how pleasant, are fetters on our liberty. Unless we break these habits, we'll never find freedom or truth. Hinduism wants to show us the way there. It gives us a lot of options. It gives us philosophy to stretch the mind, yoga to expand the spirit, and devotional paths to stir the heart. It has a complex and symbolic mythology that is part religious text, part high literature, and part entertainment.
Hinduism was the first major world religion to suspect a profound difference between the world of appearances and ultimate reality. It was the first to suggest that behind the multiplicity of entities in the universe — trees, stones, horses, perceptions, thoughts, gods, and demons — there was a single, undying unity behind it all. It was the first religion to try to find that unity. The search continues.
THE HOLY LAND OF HINDUISM
To the Hindus, an invisible thread connects every aspect of nature to every other. And so, it makes perfect sense that the landscape itself has a divine quality.
India has seven sacred rivers, but the holiest of them all is the Mother Ganges. The Ganges herself is a river goddess; her ultimate origin is the "merciful foot" of the god Vishnu. The river is thus a celestial one, flowing across the heavens, then pouring over the head of the god Shiva before tumbling to earth. Sometimes Mother Ganges is shown as a water nymph in Shiva's hair. That's because the stories say that in olden days the Ganges was so powerful she threatened to drown India. Shiva saved the day by having her flow through his matted hair, which was apparently a good water-soaker- upper.
The Hindu sacred rivers are said to flow with the waters of immortality. (The very term Hindu is derived from the Indus River.)
SEVEN SACRED RIVERS
The seven sacred rivers of India are the Ganges, the Sindhu (Indus), Sarasvati, Yamuna (now Jumna), Narmada, Godavari, and Kaveri. Don't bother trying to locate the Sarasvati. It's fictional.
Located on the Ganges is India's most holy city, Benares (now called Varanasi). It is called the "luminous," or city of light, and for a millennium and a half it was sacred to Buddhists and Jains as well as to Hindus. (The Buddha preached his first sermon here.)
For Hindus, Benares is the city of the great god Shiva, who, they say, will save it even as he destroys the rest of the universe. In fact, it is so holy that those who manage to die by the river in Benares will achieve spiritual liberation. Even meditation at Benares is more auspicious than elsewhere, especially if performed at one of the city's many cremation sites. To smear one's body with the crematory ashes is most auspicious of all.
SEVEN SACRED CITIES
All together, India has seven sacred cities. Besides Benares, these are: Ayodha, Mathura, Hardvar, Kanci, Ujjain, and Dvaraka.
A HINDU HISTORY
Scholars believe that Hinduism is a cross-fertilization of two cultures: the indigenous Indus Valley Civilization and the invading Aryan culture.
The Indus Valley Civilization
The first civilization that we know anything about in India is the Indus Valley Civilization. This famous, albeit mysterious culture was rediscovered in 1917 by an Indian archaeologist who found an ancient knife sticking out of the ground. Since then, it has been excavated in about twenty-five sites along the Indus and Ghaghar Rivers. Altogether, it may have consisted of more than 150 towns and cities, of which the two most important were Mohenjo-Daro (The Mound of the Dead) and Harappa. The whole complex of places is located in the Larkana Valley of modern Pakistan, but Pakistan used to be part of India and that's what's important.
The Indus Valley Civilization flourished from about 2500 to 1500 B.C.E., and no one really knows why it declined, although certainly enough theories have been proposed. (Its writing system is still undeciphered, which doesn't help matters any.) Scholars have been impressed with what they term as the strongly religious nature of the Indus Valley people, but suspect that the inhabitants were pretty much like modern-day folk; some were religious and some weren't. Their religion seems to have been goddess-centered, although there are also indications of a complementary phallic-worship, symbolized by bulls and some rather interesting phallic-shaped objects scattered here and there. There are also some figures who look for all the world like seated yogins (or yogis, if you prefer).
YOGI OR YOGIN
Although many English speakers prefer the word yogi, yogin is an equally correct term.
The Indus Valley Civilization is generally identified with the dark-skinned Dravidian people. Although originally considered as hicks living in a cultural backwash, it turns out that in fact the Dravidians were considerably more civilized than their eventual conquerors. They grew cotton, wheat, barley, and had an excellent system of brick drains. In fact, the Indus Valley people seemed as obsessed by plumbing as we are today. They had indoor latrines, bathing rooms, and running water. The Indus Valley folk were also expert metalsmiths, but unfortunately for them, hadn't mastered the use of iron. This proved to be their undoing.
The Coming of the Aryans
The light-skinned Aryans, who were skilled in the use of iron weaponry and chariots, showed up in the Punjab region around 1500 B.C.E. No one knows where they came from originally — one good guess is southeast Europe. Some settled in Iran. (Iran and Ayran are cognates.)
The Aryans didn't arrive in one fell swoop. They probably dribbled in, over a period of about a thousand years or so. It's possible that the Indus Valley people didn't even know the Aryans were there until it was too late, although some historians contend that the arrival of the warlike Aryans brought the peaceful Indus Valley Civilization to a screeching halt. The Aryans were a polytheistic, class-oriented people whose religious pantheon bore a remarkable resemblance to that of the Greeks and Romans. They worshipped male sky gods, chief of whom was Dyaus, the shining god of heaven. (The English word day is linked to Dyaus.) Their main religious rituals apparently involved fire and sacrifice. Religious ideals that we associate with classical Hinduism, such as asceticism and renouncing the world are not Aryan at all and may have belonged to the indigenous population. Or they may be a later development.
THE INDIAN PEOPLE
With one billion inhabitants India is, next to China, the world's most populous country (and it has only one-third the land mass of China).
The people of India speak 745 different languages among them. Fourteen of those languages are "official" (including English), but the most commonly spoken language in India is Hindi.
At any rate, modern Hinduism derives from both Aryan and Dravidian culture, although traditionally, the Aryans have been considered the founders of most Hindu religious concepts and traditions. The blending of the cultures was a slow process, and certain aspects of modern life reflect the lively tension between them.
The Hindu people comprise many ethnic groups and dozens of cultures. More than a billion people live in India today, and 40 percent of them are under the age of fourteen. Besides Hindus, about 80 million Muslims and 15 million Sikhs currently dwell in India.
Although most Hindus live in India (about 700 million of them), another 60 million are scattered across the globe. More than 2 million Hindus live in the United States, and hundreds of thousands more live in what one might think are rather unlikely places: Trinidad, Guyana, and Surinam have almost half a million Hindus each, a large minority population. South Africa alone has 1.5 million Hindus, and millions more live in Indonesia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, France, Germany, the Gulf States, Mauritius, Reunion, Malaysia, Nepal, and Canada. Only seven Hindus are reported in Iceland, but one might perhaps expect no more.
Hindus come in many styles. Just as a Christian can be a Methodist or a Catholic or a Jehovah's Witness, so a Hindu can be a Shaivite, a Vaisnavite, or a Sakti. They can't be Jains or Sikhs or Buddhists, however. Even Hinduism has its limits.CHAPTER 2
Aryan and Vedic Religious Tradition
IN THIS CHAPTER
The Holy scriptures of Hinduism
The many gods and the one God
Karma, samsara, and maya
Time and the universe
The four goals and the four margas
The Aryans were a rather strange bunch, religiously speaking. Although they were a polytheistic people, they had no idols of their gods. They had no temples and worshipped under the open sky. They had no cult and no dogma. They had something better, though: they had poetry.
The Vedas are the world's most ancient scripture. To the uninitiated, they look like a collection of hymns and directions for sacrifice, but for the devout Hindu they represent not only the highest spiritual discipline, but also the very means by which the universe is sustained. For the Hindus, the Vedas are "uncreated" scripture. They have no beginning in time. This means that they are not the work of human beings or even of God. They are the very truth, life, and essence of the cosmos.
Oral and Written Words
The earliest written Vedas date to about 1400B.C.E., but the songs they capture in letters are a great deal older, although no one can say by how much. They are very old. They are called shruti scriptures in Sanskrit, meaning that they were "heard." That makes them holy. Like all ancient peoples, the Aryans regarded oral knowledge as more sacred than written lore, and the most secret teachings were never written down, where just anyone might find them. What is oral is spoken, of course, and what is spoken contains the sacred breath of life. That's another reason why oral knowledge is considered more holy than what is written. In addition, oral knowledge is knowledge enshrined on the heart — memorized (not read), and so is part of the living being who recites it.
THE TREMBLING ONES
The original singers of the Vedas are the rishis, the ancient sages who are also called "The Trembling Ones," for the hymns they sang rocked their bodies with an awesome ecstasy. They are not considered the "authors" of the Vedas, however, just the channel through which the holy words were communicated.
The Vedic texts are written in a kind of sacred code. The text is plain for all to read — but its deepest meaning is for the initiated only. Even today, studying the Vedas means studying with a master, because no one gets very far into the truth on his own. For Hindus, the Vedas are the foundation scriptures upon which all other sacred works must be based.
THE SACRED LANGUAGE
The language of the Vedas is Sanskrit, a language so holy that the very word Sanskrit means "perfect." It is one of the oldest languages on earth. Hindu scholars believe that every word in Sanskrit has both literal and symbolic significance, and the ancient Aryans thought that language had power over the physical universe.
As a spoken tongue, Sanskrit disappeared around 500 B.C.E. As a sacred instrument for religious purposes, however, it is still used for rituals and texts, even in religious movements that developed long after Sanskrit ceased to be spoken. (However, many texts of Bhakti Hinduism are written in Tamil, a pre-Aryan, Dravidian tongue.)
Excerpted from The Best Guide to Eastern Philosophy and Religion by Diane Morgan. Copyright © 2001 Renaissance Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Diane Morgan teaches religion and philosophy at Wilson and Frederick Community College. Passionate about sharing the beauty and mystery of Eastern thought with her students, Morgan is also passionate about dogs, and has authored several books on canine care. She lives in Williamsport, Maryland.
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This amazingly well written book by Diane MOrgan is a gateway into learning the major Eastern religions. Packed with both the dogma and the information behind it, Diane expresses them all with equal clarity. Well written, humorous, and deeply informational, this book is sure to appeal to Taoists and Christians alike