A brief Introduction
A brief Introduction
Vedanta Ashram Society
AN INTRODUCTION TO HINDUISM
According to Hinduism, one can reach God through many
paths; it offers people an infinite choice of paths through which to
reach God. The broadness and latitude of Hinduism perplexes many
people who are convinced that there is only one path to God. Hinduism
teaches us how to live a dynamic spiritual life while also living
dynamically in the world. Hinduism does not preach a passive life
in quest of salvation after death.
There are two cardinal points in Hinduism:
(1) God is One but manifests in many names and forms
(2) The ultimate goal of life is to realize God
The following sections provide a glimpse of Hinduism,
which appeared approximately 4,000 years ago on the Indo-Gangetic
2.0 Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism)
The true name of the Hindu religion is Sanatana Dharma.
Sanatana means ‘eternal’. Dharma means ‘what supports or sustains’
the universe. Dharma also means moral and ethical duties, and as
such it defines a way of life including philosophy, social order,
science and history. Unlike other religions, Sanatana Dharma
encompasses much more than a single, defined path to God.
The Persians and Greeks called this religion Hinduism as a
reference to the religion followed by people living on other side of
the river, or Sind (pronounced by them as Hind).
3.0 Social Life
Hinduism teaches how best to lead a life in this very world
while keeping the final goal of God-realization in view. Thus its
scriptures suggest householders to acquire:
• Dharma (righteousness)
• Artha (wealth)
• Kama (physical pleasure)
• Moksha (Liberation)
In ancient times people were expected to go through four
ashramas, or stages of life in a specific order, beginning with student
life and culminating in the ascetic life of spiritual practices:
• Student life
• Householder life
• Retired life
• Ascetic life
Childhood and early youth are spent in acquiring Dharma,
which includes the mastery of skills, through education, that help
one to succeed in life by developing the power of the mind for
secular success and for spiritual success through living righteously
and harmoniously with others.
After becoming established in righteousness, one enters
the next stage of married life, the life of the householder. In this
ashrama, the skills that have been learned are used to enjoy wealth
and pleasures within the limits prescribed by Dharma. Scriptures
assert that all life forms belong to one ecosystem. Therefore, a
householder must repay five Reen or ‘debts’:
• Deva-reen (debt to God)
• Rishi-reen (debt to sages)
• Pitri-reen (debt to ancestors)
• Nri-reen (debt to mankind)
• Bhuta-reen (debt to sub-human species, plants, creatures, etc.
The spirit of renunciation and desire for liberation gradually
develops with age. So, from middle to old age a householder engages
entirely in the pursuit of Moksha, the highest of the above four
objectives in life. As everything comes from God and eventually
merges in God, there is no higher goal than God-realization. Hindus
believe that the human form is the highest of all living forms; it is
best equipped for God-realization. Householders are advised to follow
the path of ‘permitted sensual pleasure’. They must perform all
their duties and repay the debts specified above while surrendering
the results of all actions to God. These things are done for the sole
purpose of realizing God.
4.0 Nature of God
The Rig-Veda tells us about a single, primordial, abstract,
indescribable Eternal Principle designated as ‘That.’ The entire world
has evolved from That, is sustained by That and is withdrawn into
That. This principle is beyond time, space and causation. ‘Hence
‘THAT’ is unknowable by ordinary minds, which require a framework
of time and space to comprehend anything. The abstract concept
of God is called Brahman* or Nirguna Brahman, whose nature is Sat
(eternal existence) – Chit (pure consciousness) and Ananda (infinite
Nirguna Brahman, when seen through the lens of a finite
mind is seen as Saguna Brahman or Ishvara, or Personal God with
comprehensible attributes like shape as well as qualities like compassion,
etc. This omnipresent, omniscient and all pervading God
uses His divine power, Maya, to create this world with both good
and evil in it, but He is beyond it all.
Ishvara creates, protects and withdraws or dissolves this
universe into Himself. Brahma, Vishnu and Siva are the names of the
three aspects of Ishvara. While in the process of creation Ishvara is
called Brahma, while in the process of sustaining Ishvara is called
Vishnu, and during dissolution Ishvara is Siva.
In the early the days of civilization, the Indo-Aryan ancestors
adored the forces of nature (earth, water, fire, rain etc.) as gods but
later their mind evolved into higher concepts of the Supreme God
as described above.
4.1 Deities or Gods
In addition to the three aspects above, one or more aspects of
the Supreme God are personified as deities. For example, Ishvara as
the giver of wealth is personified as Lakshmi, Ishvara as knowledge
is Saraswati, and so on. Hindus also accept the various animate and
inanimate aspects of the universe as presiding Devis and Devas. For
example, Varuna presides as the water of the universe.
Thus Hinduism accepts only one God, while recognizing
different aspects of God under different names—the same man can
be a son to his mother, a father to his son and a clerk to his colleagues
in the office.
5.0 The Scriptures
5.1 Primary Scripture
The Vedas are perhaps the oldest scriptures. Together,
they have the highest authority as the primary scripture. They were
revealed intuitively to India’s sages and were recorded only after a
very long time. Other sacred literature is based on the Vedas and is
of secondary authority. Figure 1 shows the classification of Vedas:
Figure 1. Vedas and its division
5.2 Secondary Sacred Literature
A large number of sacred literatures (Figure 2) is based on
the Vedas, and these are of secondary authority:
Figure 2. Secondary literature
5.2.1 Darshana of Philosophical Scriptures
Philosophical literatures are broadly divided into six schools
of thoughts (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Darshana or philosophical literatures
Mythological stories are integral parts of the society. Out
of the large number six important Puranas are shown in Figure 4
Figure 4. Puranas, the mythological books
These theological scriptures (Figure 5) include rituals,
Figure 5. Agamas, the theological scriptures
6.0 Hindu Philosophy
Philosophy is one of finest and strongest aspects of Hinduism.
The schools of thought shown in Figure 3 are the most prominent.
Of these, Vedanta (see 5.2.1) takes precedence.
According to Hindu philosophy, God creates the universe
by His power drawn out of Himself, He sustains it and then He
withdraws it into Himself. This process goes on forever in a cyclic
order. Each cycle is called a Kalpa. The concept of a sudden creation
of the universe without a cause is rejected here.
Hindu philosophy also accepts non-theistic interpretations
of creation. Sankhya, the oldest of all Hindu philosophical schools,
does not recognize God in the game of creation. Kanad’s school
supports an atomic theory of creation.
6.2 Who am I ?
The ancient sages of Indian sages their entire life and efforts
to find answer to this question. They came up with the idea of Atman,
or Self. It forms the very core of man’s being. The Atman is different
from the body, mind and ego. The physical body may be compared
to a chariot. It is driven by five restless horses (the five senses),
which are controlled by the reins (mind) in the hands of the charioteer
(intellect). The owner sitting at the back of the chariot is the Atman.
The Atman is unchangeable and deathless. It cannot be unaffected
The self is like a small wave in the vast ocean of Brahman.
The Atman rises from Brahman and merges back into Brahman.
The Atman is the true identity of a human being.
6.3 Death and Rebirth
Rebirth is an essential element of Hinduism and Buddhism.
A person is born essentially because of his/her unfulfilled desires.
A person has physical or gross body and a subtle body. The subtle
body is comprised of the mind, intellect etc. When an individual
dies his/her gross body is destroyed, but the subtle body travels to
one of the many places of existence or Lokas depending upon one’s
accumulated virtues or vices. The joy or suffering of the particular
Loka is experienced by the bodyless mind of the individual for certain
period of time.
Hindu philosophy believes in the scientific principle of cause
and effect. The effects of one life are carried forward to the next.
Thus, a human soul may be reborn as a sub-human species owing to
bad actions. That soul remains in that state until the impressions of
bad actions are worn out. Similarly, a virtuous soul of good actions
has to leave the higher Loka’s enjoyment as soon as his accumulated
virtues are exhausted.
Subhuman species can and actually do elevate themselves
to human form through good work but the spiritual practices that
are possible in human life alone can lead to final liberation, when
the soul merges in God.
Following the scientific principle of cause and effect, in
Hinduism, every action has a reaction. This is known as the Doctrine
of Karma. One’s action will surely bear a reaction that will act on
one’s body or mind, sooner or later. Deeds (karma) that are good
produce pleasant reactions; bad deeds produce pain.
Because Hinduism recognizes rebirth or reincarnation, the
results of some actions require more than one life term to bear fruit.
The result that is carried forward or stored is called Sanchita karma.
Any action committed in this life and its result is called Kriyaman
Some types of work bear fruit immediately in this life. Results
of other actions are added to the storehouse of Sanchita karma.
When Sanchita karma begins to bear fruit in a subsequent life it is
called Prarabdha karma. We alone are responsible for results of our
actions. God simply dispenses the results. The results of a previous
birth may bring suffering to an ordinary newborn or a saint who never
committed a sin. Our present life, however, is not necessarily governed
entirely by results of our previous life. We have the freedom to do
good actions and surrender the results to God. This frees us from
the karmic forces. Nevertheless, each one of us must work out our
own Prarabdha karma.
6.5 God and Creation
Vedanta philosophy emphasizes the relationship between
God and His creation in great detail. Three great Acharyas or philosopher-
saints promoted three great schools of Vedantic philosophy:
• Dvaita or Dualist Vedanta (Madhavacharya School)
• Advaita Vedanta or Monism (Shankaracharya
• Vashishta Advaita Vedanta or Qualified Monism
6.5.1 Dvaita or Dualism: (Figure 5)
It is based on the relationship with God as: “You are my
Master and I am your servant”
Figure 6. Dvaita or Dualism recognizes God and devotee as two
Dualists of the Madhavacharya School could view God as:
Figure 7 Advaita or Monism does not view God as a separate entity.
Advaita Vedantists or Monists of the Shankaracharya School
have this perspective:
• No distinction, world, as we see it, is illusory
• Unity of existence.
6.5.3 Vishista Advaita or Qualified Monism: (Figure 8)
It views God as: ‘You are full, and I am your part’
6.5.2 Advaita Vedanta or Monism: (Figure 7)
This philosophy views God as: “I am You, and You are I”
Figure 8. Vishista Advaita views God in everything.
Vashista Advaitists (Ramanujacharya school) views that
God (Paramatma) is manifested in everything (Jivatma)
7.0 Paths to God
Two major, broad paths are specified here:
• Nivritti (path of renunciation of sensual pleasure)
• Pravritti (path of permitted sensual pleasure)
The first path is specified for Sannyasins or sages. The
second one is for householders. Beside these broadly defined paths
there are four specific paths to God-realization:
• Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion, where emotion is
• Jnana Yoga, the path of inquiry, where self-inquiry and
discrimination are tantamount
• Raja Yoga, the path of meditation, suitable for the
• Karma Yoga, the path of right action where selfless work
is performed without attachment, and the fruits of actions
are surrendered to God
7.1 Raja Yoga
Raja Yoga uses mental power to realize God. Scriptures
warn aspirants of the danger of eight extreme powers that spiritual
aspirants could acquire in this path. They are:
• Anima (capacity to shrink extremely small and penetrate
through solid objects)
• Laghima (lightness of body and capacity to levitate)
• Vyapti (capacity to expand)
• Prakamya (acquisition of irresistible will)
• Mahima (capacity to make body extremely large)
• Ishitva (acquiring god-like power)
• Vashitva (power to bring everything under one’s control)
• Kamavasayita (ability obtain whatever one desires)
The powerful mind could get additional powers like:
• Khechari vidya (capacity to fly)
• Mrityunjaya vidya (conquest of death)
• Patala siddhi (ability to find hidden treasure)
• Kaya siddhi (ability to enter another’s body)
• Trikala jnana (knowledge of past, present and future)
• Iccha mrityu (death at will)
• Antardhana (capacity to be invisible)
• Khudpipasa nivritti (freedom from hunger and thirst)
• Sarvabhutaruta jnana (power to understand the language
of all animals)
These extremely attractive powers are regarded as Bighno
or pitfalls in the path of God-realization through the path of Raja
Yoga or mind-control.
8.0 Additional aspects of Hinduism
This is the greatest symbol of Hinduism. It has many
interpretations. Its sound, AUM, is interpreted as A (Creation), U,
(Preservation) and M (Dissolution). AUM is also interpreted as
A (Svarga or Heaven), U, Martya or Earth) and M (Patala or the
8.2 Image Worship
Hindus do not practice idolatry. Hindus worship God
through various icons or images in the same way that Christians
kneel before the Cross, Muslims kiss the Kaaba stone, or a patriot
salutes the national flag. A Hindu may worship hundreds of images
remembering the many aspects of the Supreme God but does not
worship the material (clay, stone or paper) that the image is made of.
Some Hindus, the followers of the Advaita philosophy or Brahmo
Samaj for example, worship the formless God.
8.3 Caste System
Citizens of western countries today belong to one or another
of various classes organized according to the efficient service to
the city or nation that each individual provides. In today’s highly
developed society, the son of a carpenter can go to a university
and become a professor if he desires. Four thousand years ago,
access to education and training in a vocation was not that simple
or easily available. Most children learned their parents’ vocation in
their own community where they lived. Against this background,
social scientists like Manu thought it fit to classify all vocations
into four broad groups or castes: Brahmin (science of learning and
research); Kshatriya (science of administration and war); Vaishya
(science of business and commerce), and Shudra (science of labor
Originally, all castes had equal importance, since each was
essential for the welfare of society. A person’s caste was determined
by his or her ability and aptitude. With the passage of time, powerful
individuals changed the time-honored caste system to suit their own
economic and political vested interests. Their greed corrupted the
noble, reasonable structure of India’s society, making it vulnerable
to exploitation. Education alone can eradicate this evil in society.
Swami Bhaskarananda, (2002) The Essentials of Hinduism, Viveka
Press, Seattle. USA
Swami Harshananda,(1993), Hinduism through Questions and
Answers”, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India
Swami Nirvedananda, 1984, Hinduism at a Glance, Ramakrishna
Radhakrishna, S. (1973), A Source Book in Indian Philosophy,
Princeton University Press, Princeton.
Sircar, M. (1974), Hindu Mysticism, Oriental Books, New Delhi.
Saraswati, C. (1991), The Vedas, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay.
Om Tat Sat
(My humble salutations to Vedanta Ashram Society Canada for the collection)