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World ReligionsAn Indispensable Introduction
By Gerald R. McDermott
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Gerald R. McDermott
All right reserved.
The World's Oldest Set of Religions
There is no such thing as Hinduism. (You now know more than the average Christian and will immediately stand out in your next theological debate.) The term Hinduism implies a religion in which the parts are consistent with one another. But such a religion does not exist. That will no doubt surprise you, but consider this: the word Hinduism is a word the British coined as a catchall term for the innumerable and often contradictory religions they found on the Indian subcontinent.
I say contradictory because, for example, some Indian religions are theistic (they believe in a personal god) and others aren't. The latter think the divine is an it, not a Someone. This it includes everything and contains everything (this is called pantheism), but it most certainly is not a Person who created the world or to whom we can pray.
That's the reason I say some Indian religions contradict others. Theistic Indian religions contradict pantheistic Indian religions. And these pantheistic religions can actually be called atheistic because their adherents don't believe in a personal god who created the world or who can save us. They are religious (they have a reverence for the mystery and spiritual essence of the world) but atheistic (there is no personal god who created or rules the world).
Now, most Hindus probably would not agree that these different religions are contradictory. They would say either that it doesn't matter because religious practice is most important, or that what seems contradictory to us is really harmonious at the "highest" level of reality. (I will explain "levels of reality" in just a bit.) Some Hindus talk about Hinduism as a journey in which they progress from worshiping a god to realizing that the god is merely an image of ultimate reality in which there are no personal gods.
But back to my first point. Instead of one religion called Hinduism, there are many religions in India, often contradictory and wildly conflicting in beliefs. That's the reason I have titled this chapter "Hinduisms: The World's Oldest Set of Religions." A more accurate title would be "the native religions of India." I say "native" because Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (as well as others) are also flourishing religions in India, with millions of adherents there, but they were founded elsewhere. This chapter will focus on Indian religions that got their start on the Indian subcontinent.
There are many, many different religions that are called Hindu. The Hindu scriptures in fact say there are 330 million gods and at least several scores of these gods have their own sets of beliefs and practices. So where to start?
I think the best way to make some sense of this huge number of competing and mutually conflicting Indian religions is to look at two things about life and death that almost all Hindus believe in, and then to see the two major sets of Indian religions (all called Hindu) that try to resolve those two things.
In Agreement on Two Concepts
The first thing most Hindus agree on is samsara. This is pretty much what we call reincarnation. Hindus call it the combination of karma (literally, "deeds") and rebirth. It means that after death we are judged by an impersonal law of karma, which determines what kind of life we will be reborn into. If we did bad deeds and therefore have bad karma, we are reborn into an unhappy life as a human being or animal or even insect. If we led a good life and accumulated good karma, then we will be reborn into a happy human life. Samsara is the endless (and without beginning, either) cycle of life, death, and rebirth: after each life we die and are reborn into a different life.
Some movie stars have told the media that they look forward to their coming rebirths, but in the history of India, most Hindus haven't. Life has usually not been too happy for most Hindus, and most of them know they may not have what it takes to earn a better rebirth the next time around. Therefore most Hindus earnestly seek the second thing most of them agree on: moksha.
Moksha is Sanskrit for "liberation," which in this case means liberation or release from the iron law of samsara. In other words, Hindus want to be released from the iron law of life-death-rebirth. They don't want to be reborn forever and ever. They want to stop the wheel and get off—finally to be free of reincarnation. Most of the assorted varieties of Hindu religions can be seen as ways to get free from samsara and therefore to achieve moksha.
Four Roads to Moksha
There are four main avenues to moksha in Hindu religions: the way of knowledge (jnana, the best-known of which is Advaita Vedanta), the way of devotion (bhakti), the way of works (karma), and the way of meditation (yoga). We are going to look at two of these, because they are the best known and the most widely practiced—the way of knowledge and the way of devotion. The first, the way of knowledge or Advaita Vedanta, is the best known and most prestigious intellectual tradition in Hinduism; the second, the way of devotion (bhakti), is far and away the most popular form of Hindu religion today. If you can get a basic idea of how these two Hindu systems work, you will be able to comprehend the basic ways the vast majority of Hindus in the world think.
The Way of Knowledge: Advaita Vedanta
Take off your Western eyeglasses and be ready to imagine a way of looking at reality that is very different from your own. With a little patience, you can conceive a world as it is seen by more than a billion people on this planet (because some features of this philosophy are shared by Daoists and Buddhists).
This path to moksha is called the way of knowledge because it promises that you can escape samsara (the endless cycle of life-death-rebirth) if you come to see (know) reality in the right way. It takes a lot of work to come to this knowledge or spiritual vision, but the result will be the end to rebirths (reincarnation).
The most famous teacher of this way was Shankara (AD 788–820), a Brahmin (see the sidebar) priest and philosopher from south India. Shankara's system, which has become the most respected school of philosophy for Hindus, is called Advaita Vedanta.
Understanding what Advaita and Vedanta mean will help us understand this all-important philosophy. Advaita is Sanskrit for "non-dual." This means there are not two (or three or more) things in reality. In other words, there is ultimately only one thing. That one thing is Brahman, the impersonal spirit or essence of the cosmos, and it is unchanging. Everything that appears to our eyes and other senses is ultimately unreal. Only eyes that have been opened spiritually can see the underlying reality in all things.
Vedanta means "end of the Vedas." The Vedas are the early set of Hindu scriptures, the last set of which (the "end" of them) are the Upanishads. These writings, composed between 600 and 400 BC, teach that the soul (atman) is the same as the essence of the cosmos (Brahman).
Shankara taught that typically we think anything that is real is distinct from other real things and is always changing. So, for example, I think that I am separate from the computer at which I am now looking, and that both the computer and I are constantly changing. But if I were to attain spiritual knowledge, I would "see" that both the computer and I share an unchanging inner reality, and that this inner essence is more real than the outer forms people see when they look at me and my computer as two different things.
Notice I said "more real." Usually we in the West think in terms of reality and unreality. I am real and the character in a movie—say, Spiderman—is unreal. But in India people think in terms of levels of reality. They would point to a nightmare, in which a bogeyman is chasing us—a dream I confess I have from time to time. When I am dreaming this, my heart beats faster and I may even sweat because I am afraid. Is the bogeyman real? To my dreaming mind, he is very real! That's why I sweat and my heart beats faster. But to my conscious mind, just after I awake and realize in relief it was only a dream, the bogeyman is unreal. Hindus would say that, at least while I was dreaming, that bogeyman was real—but at a lower level of reality.
We Christians might say that Jesus Christ is more real than I am. He was and is the fully real human being, fully actualized. Christians connected to him are also real, but because of our sins and incomplete sanctification, our humanity is far less real than his. In other words, when we look at Jesus, we see full humanity. When someone looks at me, she does not see a full man because I am not what God fully intended a human being to be. I am not as really human as Jesus was and is. Humans are meant to love always and love deeply, and my love is sporadic and often superficial. So in this sense we too might say that I am less real, or on a lower level of reality, than Jesus.
This Christian way of talking about levels of reality is different from the Hindu one, but it may help you imagine how Hindus can talk this way. For example, Shankara taught that the gods, human beings, and the world are all real, but at a lower level of reality from that which is at the highest level—Brahman. Each member of these three groups (gods, human beings, and physical world[s]) exists, but only as that bogeyman in my dream exists. Or as a murder in a stage play exists. In the drama on the stage, there really are people fighting one another, a murder weapon, (at least fake) blood, and cries of pain. And the people in the audience really do feel excitement and shock and sadness—but only at the level of the play. They know that at a "higher" level (as Hindus would say) or in "real life" (as Westerners would say), there was no murder.
So too for the gods. They have a "certain" reality in our lives here and now. But when all is said and done and we see reality as it really is, we will realize that they are not part of what is fully real.
Neither is this world fully real. It is like when we are walking in the forest at dusk and look ahead on the trail and see what looks very much like a snake. We get scared (if you're like me—I hate snakes!) and stop walking forward, wondering how in the world we can get to our destination by another route. When we realize there is no other way, and we inch forward to get a better look, we are suddenly relieved to discover it is only a rope. We conclude that the snake was only an illusion ("maya" in Sanskrit). Shankara said the separate human individual and even the world itself are also maya. The only thing that is "really" real is Brahman, where there are no distinctions between any one thing and anything else.
Hard to understand? Some Hindus have used the illustration of a drop of water falling out of the sky over the ocean. While that drop is falling, it is an individual drop, with unique characteristics, like no other drop in the world. It has a unique weight, density, shape, taste, color, and even smell—though the way in which each of these is different from those of other drops is infinitesimally small. Nevertheless, it is a drop like no other in the world. So it is a distinct, individual drop.
Yet when that drop hits the surface of the ocean, in less than a second it loses its individuality. No longer does it have a shape or weight or density. Now the atoms of that drop are dispersed throughout the ocean. Does the drop still exist? Yes and no. No, as a drop with individuality. But yes, insofar as the particles and molecules of that drop are still around, but they have become merged with the ocean itself. There is now no distinction between the drop and the ocean.
Hindus who adhere to this Advaita tradition compare us in our individual selves to that drop, and our future in Brahman to the ocean a moment after that drop has hit the surface. In Brahman there is no "I." But in some way that you and I (and even Shankara!) cannot understand, "we" still have some degree of existence, yet not as individual selves.
Let's sum up by asking how Shankara thinks we can solve the basic human problem. You see, every religion says this world is not the way it is supposed to be, that the cosmos has been screwed up in some way. This is what I mean by "the basic human problem."
Every religion also prescribes what it thinks is the resolution to the basic human problem. I will explain for Shankara, and for bhakti in the next few pages, their answers to both of these questions: What is the basic human problem? And how can it be resolved?
Shankara said that the basic human problem is ignorance. By the way, most religions of the Far East say the same, though each defines the object of the ignorance—what we are ignorant of—differently. While most Hindu and Buddhist religions say the human problem is intellectual, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the religions that began in the Middle East, say the basic human problem is moral. Let me repeat that for clarity's sake: in the Far East the basic problem is said to be intellectual, while the religions of the Middle East tell us our basic problem is moral.
According to Shankara, of what are we ignorant? The answer is Brahman, or ultimate reality, which of course contains no distinctions and therefore is finally only one thing.
How do we solve the problem? By meditation and asceticism (that's coming up). That means we must meditate on the nature of reality until we finally "see" that everything is Brahman, even the individual self (atman). But we will attain that final vision only if we combine asceticism with meditation. This is when we deprive ourselves of the pleasures of the flesh, such as tasty food and drink, a soft bed, sex and marriage, and other sensual enjoyments. Hindus seeking Brahman will often go into the forest to meditate, where they will sleep on the ground and eat the barest of foods, often fasting.
The Way of Devotion: Bhakti
Now that we have explored the most prestigious Hindu path to moksha, let's turn to the most popular path. It is called bhakti, which is Sanskrit for "devotion." This path is a way to liberation from samsara (remember, this is the endless cycle of reincarnation) by means of love and surrender (devotion) to a personal god.
Notice I use the adjective "personal." This is because the previous path, Advaita, says that the gods are not real at the highest level of reality. So there is no personal god at all. Brahman is not a person (having mind, will, and emotions) and not a god as we tend to think—a Someone who created the world and controls it and will finally put an end to it. No, Brahman is impersonal, something of an it that is behind and in the world, and in fact is the only thing that is unchanging and fully real.
But bhaktas (devotees of bhakti) believe there are gods, and they are at every level of reality, if there are levels at all. (Some think there is truth in Advaita Vedanta, others don't.) Some of the gods are very powerful and can actually save us from samsara. They do this by forgiving our sins and getting rid of our bad karma, so that we can live with them forever in one of their heavens. And rather than going through many lives, trying to build up good karma and getting rid of bad karma, they will do this for us after this life if we turn to them in sincere faith. It is no wonder that bhakti is far more popular than Advaita or any other way. It is easier (by far!) and much faster.
Take Krishna, for example, who is the most popular of all the Hindu saviors, and the main character and speaker in the most beloved Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Krishna is said to be an incarnation (avatar) of Vishnu, who came to earth to right wrongs and restore righteousness. If one of his devotees serves him with love and praise, he will be released from samsara and not be reborn but enter one of Krishna's lovely heavens.
Excerpted from World Religions by Gerald R. McDermott Copyright © 2011 by Gerald R. McDermott. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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