Indian Culture and Traditions - 32

Through Questions & Answers

by Swami Harshananda

Question 1. What is Hinduism? 
The ancient Persians in whose language the letter 'sa' got metamorphosed into 'ha', used to  call this land of the river Sindhu (Indus) as Hindusthan or Hindudesh, the people as Hindus and their religion as Hind  Dharma. When looked at from this angle, all  religions of Indian origin whether it is Jainism, Buddhism or Sikhism become different facets of Hinduism.

However, it is the religion dependent on the Vedas and practised by the Aryan race that has  been generally included under  the  .definition of Hinduism. Hindu  tradition, more appropriately, calls it as 'Sanatana Dharma', a religion which is very ancient and comprises eternal values (Sanatana ancient and eternal). 

The word dharma connotes that which supports the universe  (dhr to support) and means God Him self  in the ultimate analysis. Any path of spiritual discipline which leads to God experience, can also be designated as a Dharma though in a secondary sense. From the most ancient times right up to the modern days, the various paths of spiritual discipline prescribed in Hinduism, when followed seriously and sincerely, have been leading to God experience. They can certainly do so in future also. Hence the name Sanatana Dharma is very apt.

Question 2. From whom did it originate and when? 

Unlike the other religions of the world, Hinduism did not originate with any single prophet or at a particular period of human history.
Its uniqueness lies in its being based on the super conscious experiences and spiritual realizations of a galaxy of saints, sages and seers, each of whom could claim prophet hood.
Built on such a firm foundation of spiritual experiences which are verifiable, the Hindu religious tradition has been flowing continuously like the river Ganga for several millennia. That is why it has been designated as Sanatana dharma. 

Question 3. What is the basic scripture of Hinduism? Would you epitomize its contents? 

The Vedas are the basic scriptures of Hinduism. Literally Veda means knowledge or wisdom. Shruti (that which is revealed), Agama (that which has been handed down as a tradition) and Nigama (that which gives us definite and decisive answers to the ultimate problems of life) are other appellations by which it is known. Since they were revealed, by the grace of God the Supreme, to the Rishis or sages in the depths of their intuitive experience, they have been described as apaurusheya, i.e., not created by any human agency.

These Vedas are four: Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda. Out of these the Rigveda has been conceded to be the most ancient work. According to B.G. Tilak and some other scholars who base their findings on the astronomical data available in the Rigveda itself, it was composed at least about 8000 years ago.

The Rigveda is primarily a collection of prayer hymns. The Yajurveda deals mainly with sacrificial rites and rituals. The Samaveda has set to music a selected number of hymns from the Rigveda, prescribing their chanting at appropriate stages in certain sacrifices. Incidentally, the origins of our classical music can be discovered in the Samaveda. The Atharvaveda is mostly a compendium of ethical principle  as also some branches of science like  Ayurveda (the science of
health and longevity).

Traditionally, each of the four Vedas has been divided into four parts: Mantra or Samhita,Brahmana, Aranyaka and Upanishad. The Samhitas are collections of prayers addressed to various Vedic deities like Indra, Varuna, and Vishnu. The Brahmanas this word should not be confused with the Brahmana caste
describe the modes and methods of performing Yajnas and Yagas (Vedic sacrifices and other connected rites). The Aranyakas describe various meditations based on the sacrificial rites and to be practised in the forest (aranya= forest). The Upanishads are philosophical works dealing with such topics as the Truth behind the universe, the true nature of human beings, the goal of life and the means of achieving it. 

Question 4. Many persons entertain wrong notions about Yajnas and Yagas. Is it possible to otter rational explanations to the objections often raised by them? 

If we are interested in living happily in this world, there must be the spirit of mutual co operation amongst us. To help others when we are helped by them, nay, to serve the society to the extent possible, should be our motto.

According to the Hindu concept, world does not mean only the human beings. It includes the  animal kingdom as also vegetation and other aspects or  nature. There are sentient beings who control these aspects and powers of nature. They are called Devatas or deities, The Yajnas and Yagas are the rites by which these. deities are propitiated. The Shastras or holy scriptures are the basic authority for this concept.
Pleased by these rites, these deities grant us rain, food, health, wealth and progeny, and protect us from evil. Thus, when human beings and the deities appease and please on  another,  the whole world feels satisfied. This is the basic idea behind the system of Vedic sacrifices.

Lighting the fire according to the directions given in the holy books, inviting the deities into that fire through appropriate Mantras or chants and offering oblations to them for the fulfillment of one's desires this is the essence of the prescribed process of such sacrifices. 

Question 5. Are there other scriptures also, considered sacred and authoritative?

In Hinduism, the number of books, considered as sacred, is legion. However; only the more important ones, acceptable to the orthodox tradition and venerated by almost all sections, will be described here briefly: Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavadgita, the Smritis of Manu and other sages, Agamas, Puranas and Darsanas.

The Ramayana, containing the life and deeds of Sri Rama, and the Mahabharata which deals with the story of the Pandava Kaurava princes as also of Sri Krishna have inspired the Hindus for millennia to face the problems of life.

The Bhagavadgita, more commonly known as the Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata is an extremely popular scripture. If the Upanishads can be compared to the cow, the Gita is their milk. It is in the form of a dialogue between Lord Sri Krishna and the mighty Pandava warrior Arjuna. The battlefield of Kurukshetra is its place of origin. Its central message is that one should discharge one's duty however hard and unpleasant it be bravely and with selfless dedication.

Question 7. If the Hindus really believe in one God, why do they worship a variety of gods like Siva, Devi, Vishau or Ganapati? Is it not tantamount to accepting many gods and godlings ? As If in approval of this tenet, don't we see these gods competing and conflicting with one another, if we an to believe the stories in our ? 

Though Hinduism concedes the existence of several gods or deities, it accepts only one God, the Supreme. Out of these deities, Indra and others are actually ordinary souls like us, who rose to those positions in the cosmic scheme as a result of the extra. ordinary religious merit they had acquired in the previous cycle of creation.
It should be noted here that these deities who rule over  certain aspects of the powers of nature, are like the  officers of the government, who exercise their powers delegated to them by the Head of the State. Once their merit gets exhausted, they have got to vacate their positions and try for Moksha or liberation.

Next, we take up the case of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. They are not three independent and separate deities, but three different aspects of the same Supreme God, while engaged in the processes of creation, sustenance and destruction of the universe, in that order. It is similar to the role played by the same person as the father at home, as the boss in the office and as a customer in a shop.

Question 8. Is it not the height of foolishness to worship manmade images of stone, clay or metal? Does it not betray utter ignorance and superstition?

This objection, which is very common, has been raised without a  proper understanding of the great and sublime principle behind image worship. No Hindu ever worships these images considering them as God Himself. Though they are insentient images it is the conscious and sentient God that is brought to the mind by them even as we remember the living and conscious person when we see his photograph. If even this is objected to, then, the Christians who worship the crucifix, the Muslims who adore the Kaaba stone or the patriots who honour the national flag all of them will have to be dubbed as idolators! 
As regards the superstitions, the less said, the better. It is a well known fact of European history that hapless old women were branded as witches and burnt.  Even today, the number 13 is believed by many in the West to bring bad luck. If by chance a shirt is worn inside out, they consider it as a bad omen that indicates failure in endeavours.
The killing of the chameleons by the Muslims can also be cited as another example. Actually many Hindu practices ridiculed as superstitions have deeper philosophical and psychological truths behind them than meets the eye. Even granting that superstitions do exist, they are all harmless. Lastly, the blind faith of the modem man in science and technology as if they are omnipotent, forgetting that they have miserably failed to give him peace of mind, is the greatest  superstition of all! 

Question 9. It is customary to install these images in temples which millions of Hindus visit to offer worship. What is the justification for this? Also, what is the significance of a temple? 

God exists. He is the creator and controller. His grace gives us happiness and peace. His wrath brings about sorrow and suffering. Mankind all over the world has cherished this belief in some form or other.  Once it is conceded that such a God exists, there must be an easy means of approaching Him and propitiating Him. That is the temple. The temple is the structure we put up with devotion for the residence of God when He descends to this world for our sake. It is something like the camping of the king of a State in a part of his territory. 
The essential parts of a temple are: the Garbhagriha housing the icon of the deity, the Shukanasi and Antarala which are the adjoining passages, the Navaranga or Mantapa which serves as a multipurpose hall for religio cultural activities, the Dhvajastambha or flag post and the Balipitha or the pedestal for offerings. Bigger temples have smaller shrines for the minor deities associated with the chief deity. high walls surrounding the whole campus, places reserved for performing sacrificial rites and cooking, for housing the deity (taken in procession), sheds for the temple car, wells and tanks, as also gardens. 
The structure of a temple is highly symbolical. Primarily it indicates God as the Cosmic Person. The Garbhagriha or sanctum sanctorum is His head, the Gopura (tower at the main entrance) is His feet, the Shukanasi His nose, the Antarala His neck, the Prakaras (the surrounding high walls) His hands  and so on. Alternatively it represents the body of man, with God residing in his heart. The temple may also represent the whole creation.  
In temples consecrated according to scriptural rites, the images are considered to be alive. Hence, formal worship is a must. This worship ranges from one to nine times per day, depending on the extent and resources of the temple.  On special festival days, celebrations are conducted. lie biggest of such celebrations is termed Brahmotsava (brahma=big). The Rathotsava or temple car festival is also held  during this period. The temple car is a moving symbol of the temple. 
Those who want to visit the temple are expected to enter it physically clean and with the proper mood of faith and devotion. Walking silently straight to the sanctorum, and after offering, they should come out and then circumambulate the shrine. Formal obeisance should be done from a place outside the flag post.  Then, they should visit the minor shrines and spend some time in meditation, sitting in a secluded spot on the north eastern side of the temple. it is incumbent on the  visiting devotees to .maintain the purity and sanctity of the temple. 

Question 10. What is the significance of worship, whether at home or at the temple? Is there any prescribed method for doing it? 

Puja or worship is a loving entertainment of God, even as we entertain our friends and relatives whom we love.
The several steps involved in such worship may be briefly stated as follows:
Avahana (invoking the presence of God in the image or symbol), Asana (offering a seat), Padya and Arghya (giving water for washing feet and hands), Snana or Abhisheka (ceremonial bath), Vastra (offering Clothes), Candana (smearing sandal paste and other unguents), Pushpa (offering of flowers and  garlands), Dhupa (burning incense),Dipa (waving of light), Naivedya (food offering), and finally Visarjana (bidding goodbye). 
In the temples, the Abhisheka (bathing) of the image and its decoration are done more elaborately.  If worship is performed with faith and devotion, it generates peace and joy in our minds. It is to be stated here that , according to the Agamas, God manifests Himself in a subtle form in the image or symbol duly consecrated and accepts the worship thus offered. 

Question 11. Why should not the ordinary spoken language be used in worship instead of Sanskrit? Will this not enable us to understand and follow these rites better? 

Pita (worship), Homa (sacrifice) and other similar religious rites are considered as sacred and holy acts. It is the Rishis (sages), the originators of our religious traditions, that have given us these rites including the procedure and the mantras to be used. Hence it is quite proper that we conform strictly to the pattern of the rites and the language in which they have been transmitted to us. This produces a solemn and sacred atmosphere.
Again, according to the science of the Mantras, the various Mantras used in the rites have a special potency. When they are pronounced and intoned properly, they exert a salutary effect on the minds of those who hear them. Hence, if translations or versions in the spoken language are used, they will just be translations only and do not act as Mantras. 
It would, perhaps, be helpful if a general description of the rites and the meaning of the mantras are given first in the spoken language, followed by the rituals in the traditional manner. The rites would then become more intelligible to the votaries. 
It should not be forgotten here that even in other religions, the religious rites and ceremonies are being conducted in the language of the original scriptures. 

Question 12. Are non Hindus permitted into Hindu temples? 

Of late, non Hindus also are being permitted to enter many Hindu temples. In some temples, however, admission is restricted to certain parts of the temple only. Even if their entry is completely prohibited it will not be unjustified.
The reason is simple: If the non Hindus visit our temples with the same faith they show while visiting the places of worship of their own religions, feeling that these temples are also holy, there should be no objection to their being admitted.
However, if they come without being endowed with such faith, just out of curiosity or for fun, or even to find fault, then, they would not be benefited in the least by such visits. On the other hand, it could hurt the religious feelings and sentiments of the Hindus visiting the temples. Frankly speaking, let us learn first to admit all sections of Hindus, without any distinction, into temples and see that such visits take place in a more organized and solemn way.
We can consider the admission of others later on. This is certainly not a matter of great concern for the present. 

Question 13. Allied to this topic, two more queries crop up. First Why and how should we observe the festivals? 

Celebration of festivals and sacred days is a common phenomenon found in all religions. The common masses, though they may gain some knowledge through philosophy, and wisdom through mythology, are not satisfied at heart unless they can perform some rites and rituals associated with religion. Celebration of festivals and sacred days affords them such opportunities. Performing these will give them peace and joy. At the social level, greater unity and co operation are achieved. Also, festivals help in the dissemination of religion and culture. 
On such days one is expected to devote more time for prayer and spiritual pursuits than on other days. Partaking of a feast on such days is actually symbolic of the spiritual feast we are expected to reap. So, observing festivals and sacred days through feasts only, forgetting the spirit behind them, is only a mockery of religion. This is how a holy day is often reduced to a holiday!  These festivals could be the birthdays of our great spiritual and religious leaders like Ramanavami or important milestones in the history of our religion and culture (like Gitajayanti). They could also  be occasions of thanks giving to Mother Nature (like Makara Sankranti).
Then there are other festivals like Dipavali or Durgotsava which have mythological origins. Good days in one's own life (like a birthday) might also be occasions of such rejoicing. However, on all such days, one is expected to  observe fasting, self control, worship of the family deity, honouring the elders and, taking their blessings. Partaking of the feast along with relatives and friends, visiting their homes and  exchanging presents, which are the usual things that happen on such days, may follow, but not substitute, austerity and self discipline.
During the Dusserah season, Ramlila and Durgapuja are celebrated in North India with great eclat. So does South India celebrate Ganesha Chaturthi. Holi is a common festival observed in all parts of the country. However, it is highly regrettable that, of late, in these festivals, the religious and spiritual favour has declined steeply, giving rise to indecent and violent activities. It is high time that our society wakes up to these aberrations, takes. effective steps to eradicate them and restores our festivals to their pristine and solemn glory. 

Question 14. Second Where is the need for pilgrimages? Are there set rules to be observed while undertaking them? 

A routine daily life in this humdrum world generates boredom very soon. Undertaking Pilgrimages on such occasions will reinvigorate the mind, in the same way as recharging a battery that is rundown. How can a place of Pilgrimage contribute to this? No doubt, God exists everywhere, but He is Manifest more tangibly in these places of Pilgrimage even as milk is drawn through the udder, though it permeates the entire body of the cow in a subtle form.

We have hundreds of such pilgrim centres spread all over the land. Usually they are situated in a beautiful natural location like the sea shore, the bank of a river, the foot or the top of a hill, in a valley or inside a forest. Very often they are associated with saints and sages or with important spiritual and religious events. Visited by millions of devout, Pilgrims over hundreds of years, they will have acquired a spiritual charge and aura, which will naturally affect those that  visit them with faith and fervour. It is believed that they contribute to the lessening, if not the destruction, of our sins. That is why Pilgrimage has been advocated practically in all the religions of the world. 
As regards the rules to be observed in undertaking pilgrimages, they can be summarized as follows: fixing up an auspicious date for departure; fasting and self control on the previous day; shaving, bath,  worship of Ganesha and the nine planets as also the family deity; religious resolve; performing worship and giving gifts at the pilgrim centres according to the local custom; and after returning, worship of the deities mentioned earlier.  
It is incumbent on the part of the pilgrims rather to think of God than paying any attention to the irregularities or corruptions obtaining in the place. Though it is necessary to bring such things to the notice of the competent  authorities', the chief objective of pilgrimage should not be sacrificed in the process.  It is interesting to note here that the Hindu scriptures have provided for a method by which those who are unable to undertake a pilgrimage by themselves, can get its merit  through a substitute. Such a person who acts as a substitute is expected to give the ritual bath to an image made of kusha grass and  treat it as the original person  making the pilgrimage. 

Question 15. It is the bitter experience of Hindu pilgrims that they are exploited and harassed by unscrupulous Pandas priests in the pilgrim centre. How can this be eradicated? 

This is a fundamental problem. Or, rather, it is the symptom of a fundamental problem. Hence, one should go to its root, to be able to solve it. The Pandas and priests exploit and hams the pilgrim  for the  sake of money. Its cause is poverty. Lack of proper education and culture has worsened it further. As a result, they have lost whatever respect and status they once enjoyed in our society. That these professions are hereditary is another cause for their degradation since they can get them without any competition or training. 
A commission of experts in this field should study this problem in depth and prescribe proper remedies. However, an attempt may be made here to suggest some remedies at least: 
  1. These professions should not be hereditary. 
  2. Those interested and inclined towards it should be given a thorough training spread over twelve years. During the period of training, the students should be provided with free board and lodging as also attractive scholarships. 
  3. Only those who have successfully completed such training, should be appointed as priests and Pandas. It is equally necessary that they be well paid, the salary being at least equal to that of a lecturer in a college. 
  4. They should discharge their duties on rotation basis. 
  5. They must have a say in the administration of the temples and pilgrim centres. 
  6. Our society should learn to look upon them with greater regard and reverence. 

Question 16. Is it true that God incarnates in the harm form? How does it take place? Are there as recognized limits to such incarnations? 

In such matters as this, it is the Sastra or the scripture that is our authority. Lord Sri Krishna has declared in the Gita that He incarnates Himself in this world whenever Dharma (righteousness) declines and Adharma (unrighteousness) gets the upper hand. He restores the spiritual balance by punishing the wicked and upholding Dharma. This is our final authority for the doctrine of Avatara or incarnation. 
Though in His essential nature, God is the Unmanifest Power, beyond the domain of speech and thought, He can incarnate Himself in a human body. In this regard, the only  difference between Him and us in this: We are born, forced by our Karma (Past actions) and controlled by His Maya. That is why we suffer so much. He is born out of His will and pleasure, keeping Maya under His control. There is as much difference between Him and us as between the thief surrounded by the policemen who have taken him as a prisoner and the President of the republic who is also surrounded by policemen, but to serve him at his beck and call! 
Such incarnations can appear in any country and at any time. the only criterion being the decline of Dharma and phenomenal rise of Adharma. Hence there are no limits to the number of incarnations or to places where the incarnations appear. 

Question 17. So much about God and Hindu beliefs concerning Him. Coming to man as a subject, what has Hinduism to say about the nature of man and the purpose of his life? 

Though this question appears to be short and simple, it concerns a very profound subject discussed in our philosophical works.

According to the Upanishads, which have been accepted as supreme authority by all sections, of Hinduism, man is essentially  the Atman. This Atman is uncreated and eternal. It is beyond  birth, growth, decay or death, which are changes that pertain only to the body. This Atman is of the nature of Consciousness (cit) and Bliss (ananda). 

Question 18. In that case, why do we undergo suffering in life? Will it never come to an end? 

It is exactly this that has been called Maya, Ajnana or Avidya! Because of it, we forget our real nature as Atman, identify ourselves with the body, senses and mind, and consequently suffer. How and when we came under the subjection of Maya is a problem that can never be solved.
This mind or intellect, which itself is a product of Maya, can never succeed in resolving this mystery. However, the scriptures assure us that if we discipline ourselves  according to their directions under a competent Guru (spiritual teacher), we can transcend this Maya and obtain Moksha (liberation) through the knowledge of the Atman. 

Question 19. Is Moksha the only goal of life? Has Hinduism relegated other goals concerned with life in this world? 

No; this is in fact one of the misconceptions about Hindu values of life. The Hindu scriptures prescribe Dharma (righteousness), Artha (wealth), Kama (physical pleasures) and moksa (liberation) as the four goals to be striven for in life, by. every person. These have been termed Purusharthas. In the first stage of life (childhood and early youth) one should acquire Dharma as also knowledge of secular sciences through education and discipline under competent teachers who teach the essence of the scriptures.
After being well established in Dharma, one can take to the married state. In the second stage (youth), wherein one is permitted to enjoy Artha and Kama within the limits prescribed by Dharma, variegated experiences in life will gradually induce vairagya or a spirit of renunciation in the mind . Then in the final stage (middle age and old age) one should strive for attaining Moksha. 
From this delineation of the Hindu values of life, one thing becomes very clear: Hinduism has not at all neglected life in this world, life here and now. It has gone farther than this by giving us Ayurveda (the science of health and longevity) since the maintenance of our bodies is of primary importance in attaining these goals of life. 

Question 20. What is Moksha? What will that experience be like? How can one attain it? 

We know from our direct experience that we are separate from the dress we wear or the  house we live in. Similarly we are separate from the body, the senses, the mind and egoism. When this fact is directly experienced our essentially blissful nature is fully manifest. It is this state that is described as Moksha. In this state there is total annihilation of all sorrow and suffering. After the fall of this body there will be no rebirth. 
It is Atmajnana (knowledge or direct experience of the Atman) that gives Moksha. According to the Vedanta, an aspirant after Moksha should cultivate viveka (discrimination), vairagya (dispassion) and virtues like self control and forbearance. Then he should approach a competent Guru (spiritual teacher), listen to him explaining the message of the scriptures, and reflect and meditate on that message, which will ultimately give him the experience of the Atman. 

Om Tat Sat

(My humble salutations to   H H Sri Swamy Harshananda ji  for the collection)


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