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Monday, March 05, 2007

Hinduism 101


What is Hinduism? There is a misconception about it being worship of many gods - 40,000 can be identified, most being local expressions. Yet a god in Hinduism is a symbolic representation of a force in the universe, a point of devotion which identifies the reality behind the symbol. Take the highest god, Brahma, usually with four heads, meaning the cardinal points of the compass. Four arms mean importance above the human. Each hand holds a symbolic object, representing a trait - intelligence, beauty or subtle forces that created the world. Gods are depicted dancing, showing vibrancy, and some animal-form appears, tying the god to nature.
Ganesh shows these traits in action. His father, Shiva, beheaded him, then changed his mind, giving him the head of an elephant. Hence, back to life, he symbolises the error of Shiva, his existence being of teacher to the gods. His influence then reaches down to humans, who invoke him before an undertaking because he is wise and lucky and can remove obstacles. We can therefore see Hindu gods as a process rather than deity, an expression of an allegorical story outing an aspect of humanity.
Neither dogmatic nor evangelical, Hinduism is similarly a process that brings together humanity, nature and the supernatural into a system that guides, protects and enables the world and everything in it to co-exist. The person interacts with a reality wider than himself and bigger than society; he forms a pact with universal forces expressed through ritual, sometimes in household shrines, often in temples.
At the top of the Hindu pantheon is the Trimurti - the triad of chief gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the creator-god. Once created, the world becomes one of choice between preservation and destruction. Vishnu is the preserver, Shiva the destroyer, but working together, they bring the world into balance, for only by them working in harmony can Brahma create.
Two other important gods Shakti and Kali. Shakti is the female god, an expression of the nature goddess, and represents the energy by which the creator brings the universe into being, thus sustaining life and the world. Tantrism expresses her through eroticism. The practice includes Kundalini, a serpent life energy which blocks spiritual development. Through erotic devotion Kundalini is awakened. The Kamasutra, meaning ‘thread of love’ is a guide to the practice.
As to Kali, she is wife of Shiva, sometimes identified as Shakti. Goddess of Death, she has a girdle of serpents, red eyes, fangs, earrings of corpses, a necklace of skulls and she is black with a coverage of blood.
Sometimes gods are incarnated on Earth. These are avatars such as Krishna and Rama, incarnations of Vishnu. They appear in allegorical stories which tell of their actions as heroes assisted by other-worldly forces, usually imparting great moral messages.
Various schools have arisen in Hinduism, such as the Vedanta school, formed by the sage Shankara who became a wandering ascetic, opening many monasteries. Other sages include the lst century AD Vatsyayana, accredited with writing the Kamsutra. The following explanation of Hinduism is not exact, but an amalgamation of the main ideas through the schools. For instance, many views exist of how the universe came intro being.
At the mystical end, we have the mantra, Om (a mantra is a word repeatedly intoned to aid meditation). But Om has deeper significance, expressing the totality of the Trimurti, the sound of the totality of the universe. Before the universe there was only the sound of 0m, the resonance of everything. Hence, 0m is the process of creation, and as a mantra repeats the creation in the individual.
Alternatively, intellectual ideas include Prakriti, the inert substance of the universe upon which form is impressed. Interacting with Prakriti is the life-giving consciousness, or Purusha. Every person and thing is a spark of Purusha, intersecting to allow the universe to be. The idea has echoes in Aristotelianism, and a similar idea exists in quantum physics, reality being electrical vibration from which particles form matter.
For most Hindus such ideas are negated by the role of the gods. Brahma brings into being Brahman, the Supreme Reality, who can have qualities or not. With qualities he is a devotional god, without them he is a philosophical concept of consciousness, beyond form and inconceivable. Brahman is the only true reality for in Hindu thought if something changes it cannot be real. The world we live in is not real because it changes. Hence, we live in an illusion. But if the world we experience is an illusion, how can we give it importance?
Because of the soul. In one sense, it is Jiva, the individual self which experiences death and rebirth. Above Jiva is Atman, the true self, obscured by individuality. Atman is pure consciousness, like Brahman, but different. Brahman is true reality in its entirety, whereas Atman is the pure consciousness of our individuality. Both are the god-head, but seen from separate views.
Atman shows that the illusory world of experience CAN be real to the experiencer, allowing us to live reality whilst accepting it as unreal. But the existence of Brahman tells us that each individual can, through meditation, tear back individuality and reach Brahman.
Of what nature is true reality in Hindu thought? It is cyclical, and advancement subsumed to cyclical repetition, from the stages of the world to the journey of the soul. The world is without beginning and without end, but goes in huge cycles. The largest cycle is Kalpa, beginning with the universe ‘being,’ then returned to manifest state before the cycle begins again. Each Kalpa contains Mahayugas, or lesser cycles lasting some four million years, and each of these contains four Yugas, or Ages of the World, each being of lesser quality, the last Yuga called the Kali Yuga, where Kali is strong. We are presently in a Kali Yuga, and have been throughout history.
The purpose of the Hindu is not to remain in the world of illusion, but to rise above it. Atman’s relationship to Brahman is Samsara, or cycle of birth and death, Atman being a state of flux with countless individual lives. This is the process of reincarnation. The individual has a say in how his next spark of Atman, or life, will manifest. The way you live your present life decides what caste you return to next time, or whether you go below humanity to an animal. Only rising through rebirth, you must live a good life to rise, tied to two concepts. The first is duty, or Dharma – being good, righteous and devout. Also, we have Karma, a process of moral cause and effect, meaning the accumulation of past actions relate to your position in the next life.
The idea is to break the cycle of birth and death by reaching Koksha , a release from individual existences with the discovery of the True Self and liberation from suffering and rebirth. However, you are allowed another form of union with Brahman in life. There are 3 stages to life: the student, learning about life and religion; the householder, or productive life in the world of illusion, raising a family and working; and retirement, where you improve your mystical life.
Throughout life are 4 major wants, split into two paths. The first is the Path of Desire, seeking pleasure and worldly success. You are to get on with them, indulge, for the sooner you do, the sooner you realise they are ultimately unfulfilling.
Once realized, you begin the Path Renunciation with the wants of duty and liberation.
In retirement you seek out a guru who will pass on the truth that the individual is held in the finite world by imperfections such as joy, ignorance and restricted being. He will lead you to Union through Yoga. Four main types of Yoga exist, most devotees indulging in a combination of them.
Bhakti yoga is a path of love and devotion, using symbolic gods to allow prayer.
Karma yoga deals with good work in society, a moral discipline. Juana yoga is a path through knowledge, gaining insight and understanding of the philosophical ideals of Hinduism. Finally we have meditation and spiritual discipline.
The Hindu sage Patanjali devised an ‘eight-limbed’ system of meditation. First you need correct moral action and duty, leading to meditation where you learn to concentrate. Then you must not concentrate, clearing the mind totally, thus extinguishing the Self. Once achieved, you can experience oneness with Brahman, known as the state of Samadhi. Three yoga schools exist to aid this meditation; Dhyana yoga (meditational forms within the mind); Hatha yoga (the use of physical posture such as the lotus position) and Raja yoga (contemplation of Brahman itself).
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Welcome to the spirituality blog






This blog is an offshoot of a website that I had conceived as a result of the spiritual grace and resultant inspiration during Shivaratri Y2K (http://www.jyotirlinga.com) on the joy of Shiva Bhakti and my quest for spiritual progress. Not finding the time (yep, bad excuse!), this blog suits me fine in quickly adding content... my spiritual forays and thoughts - helps log them too. My spiritual journey started with Hinduism and it's simple stories/ teachings as far back as when I was a 2nd grader, with Lord Shiva and has now found convergence with Advaitism / Duality. The Advaitism gurus like Bhagwan Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta Maharaj; they have provided that spiritual boost of energy in many lagging moments and have tremendously influenced me ... little baby steps at a time... that will hopefully all lead upto a final crescendo. The merits of satsangh are many!

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