Brahman and the wisdom of the ancient sages
O Gods! All your names and forms are to be revered, saluted, and adored.
Rig Veda X, 63, 2
Hinduism is both an ancient philosophy and a living tradition with historical roots in the Indian subcontinent. More than 3,000 years ago, great teachers, both male and female, known as rishis, came to understand Brahman. According to the rishis, Brahman is the Supreme Spirit-Soul of the universe, the all-encompassing Ultimate Principle by which and through which all things exist. Brahman is present in every particle, every molecule, every object, life, element and breath. There is no place where Brahman cannot be found, no moment in which Brahman does not exist. And yet, while Brahman may be understood as present in all things, Brahman is also without gender, attribute, shape, or form. No singular image of Brahman alone, no matter how intricate or beautiful or powerful, can express the fullness of Brahman. All life, all death, all that appears before our eyes and in our thoughts, all the mysteries combined cannot contain Brahman, for Brahman is always this and that, neither this nor that. One well known verse from Hindu sacred texts speaks of Brahman in this way: “Truth, knowledge and infinity is Brahman”. (Taittiriya Upanishad II, 1).
The sacred texts
Because the rishis received the sacred teachings directly from Brahman, the revealed wisdom was memorized and preserved in texts known as the Vedas. In Hinduism, the rishis are not considered the authors of the sacred texts, but rather, the ones who received the sacred wisdom of Brahman and passed it on to future generations. The oldest texts are written in a language called Sanskrit, which means “perfected.” Many Hindus believe that Sanskrit holds a unique capacity for communicating sacred truths. In much the way a textbook might be said to hold the laws of physics, Sanskrit contains the laws of Brahman.
The sacred texts do not offer techniques, per se, but rather, words of power. The texts are very long, and are carefully and respectfully regarded by Hindus. Recorded in hymns, poems, and stories, these are the words of worship and devotion, as well as a record of the nature of an individual human being to the Supreme Spirit. The oldest, and most sacred of all the texts is called the Rig Veda. It is the “Song of Knowledge.” The Rig Veda contains over 1,000 hymns, all of which are believed to grant knowledge of the way things really are to those who study the song. The Upanishads are a part of the Vedas. They constitute the last section of each of the Four Vedas. The Four Vedas are the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. Because Hindus believe that the Vedas constitute what the rishis heard from Brahman, they are collectively referred to as sruti or “that which is heard.” Joining with the Vedas are other texts, referred to as smriti, or “remembered” texts because, unlike the Vedas, they are acknowledged as having human authors. Within these texts, there are two great epic poems: Ramayana and Mahabharata. Within the Mahabharata is a dialogue between the teacher, Krishna, and his disciple, Arjuna, a dialogue known as Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most widely read portions of the Hindu Scriptures. Individuals and communities who studied the Vedas composed these remembered texts over the centuries. Whether the stories come from the “heard” texts of the Vedas, or the “remembered” texts, they are among the world’s oldest religious stories. Faithful Hindu storytellers kept the tradition alive and intact for generations by memorizing the stories and communicating them orally. Eventually in the last few hundred years before the beginning of the Common Era, all these stories were written down.
These writings discuss and delineate the nature of life according to the rishis and the revealed knowledge of Brahman. The sacred texts comprise the center of Hinduism and offer insights into the journey of each individual, through many lifetimes, in search of Brahman.
Understanding the soul’s journey
Hinduism teaches that all souls seek a full understanding of Brahman. The soul’s journey to understanding may be seen as a mountain climb. Imagine that a hundred people determine that they are going to climb a mountain. Some are young, some very old. Some have great physical strength, and others are weak and will need assistance. Some of the mountain climbers have enormous endurance, while a few are winded and tired with every passing step. Some will climb the mountain alone. Others will travel in groups. There are many ways to get to the top of the mountain, but if everyone is careful, persistent, pays attention to their individual aches and pains and abilities, sooner or later all the mountain climbers will reach the top of the mountain. A guru, the teacher or guide, may assist them with the climb. When they get to the summit, it will not matter which path they took, for each one will have discovered their path and will have the joy of standing at the top, each will have a story to tell and lessons that they have learned along the way. They will all stand at the top of the mountain together, and that shared moment, when it comes, will be one of great joy and unity.
Huston Smith, an American scholar and student of world religions says:
If we were to take Hinduism as a whole – its vast literature, its complicated rituals, its sprawling folkways, its opulent art – and compress it into a single affirmation, we would find it saying:
You can have what you want.
But Hinduism teaches that what we want can never be satisfied by mere hedonism or satisfaction of the ego. The answer lies in the nature of existence and the individual’s relationship to Brahman.
Samsara, karma and moksha
The sacred texts of Hinduism teach that each soul is born and reborn in a continuing cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The individual living being is called jiva and the cycles of death and rebirth are called samsara. The human soul is atman. Many Hindus believe that the true aim of life, what Smith refers to as what the soul wants, is to finally break free of samsara and reach moksha, that is, liberation. The sacred texts are clear that each soul must uncover for itself, with the aid of teachers, the means and methods for realizing this liberation of the soul, but there is no one prescribed path. Every Hindu must come to their own realization of Brahman. At the very heart of the teaching is karma. Karma literally means “works”, but in the context of Hinduism karma is a universal law, a principle which ensures that good actions have positive consequences, and bad actions have negative consequences. The more there is good, the closer the atman moves to moksha.
The Four Paths
The Hindu scriptures offer four paths to moksha. Each individual must find the path which best suits their needs, their personalities and the time and place in which they live. The paths are not exclusive and many Hindus incorporate elements from other paths while being generally faithful to one. These four paths share certain common characteristics. For example, all four acknowledge that ignorance of Brahman is the fundamental cause of all suffering. They also share their belief in the doctrines of karma and samsara and in the possibility of moksha. The four paths are:
- The Path of Devotion – Bhakti Yoga – living a life in which prayer, worship, and acts of devotion to God are central.
- The Path of Knowledge – Jnana Yoga – finding a teacher, or guru, who will help you to study and learn.
- The Path of Right Action – Karma Yoga – controlling all your actions by regarding the needs of others without concern about any benefit to yourself.
- The Path of Yoga – Raja Yoga – learning to control the body and the mind by rigorous physical exercises and routines, combined with meditation.
Each of these paths is demanding and each offers the follower a way to climb the mountain. The climber may not reach the summit in this lifetime, but the jiva will continue, and in each lifetime, have the opportunity to deepen its understanding of Brahman. This opportunity will continue lifetime after lifetime, possibly for millions of years, until the jiva reaches the top of the mountain.
Neti, neti: not this, not that
According to this tradition, in each lifetime, the jiva learns new lessons and affects karma. In each lifetime, Brahman may be understood in new and different ways. Because Brahman is infinite, and because each jiva is finite, the sacred texts tell stories of the many expressions of God-Spirit. Each story demonstrates, illustrates, or illuminates an aspect or characteristic of Brahman. Even if a man or woman memorized all the stories of the Vedas and the other sacred texts, and knew them inside and out, there would still be more to know. The fact that Brahman is unknowable is central to Hinduism. Brahman cannot be known in the way that one might be said to know an object. According to the sacred texts, Brahman is infinite and therefore can never be known in the same way that any “thing” in time and space might be.
In Sanskrit, the phrase neti neti (literally, “not this, not that”) serves to remind Hindus that “no matter what might in a sense be legitimately said concerning the nature of Brahman, must be followed with the statement that this is not ultimately so.” No thing, not even a deep understanding of Brahman can possess or contain Brahman. There is always more. Any positive assertion must be followed by its negation in order that “the depth and richness of the unfathomable are preserved.”
Again, it is like the mountain climber. Even once she has reached the summit of the mountain and sees the vistas around her, she has not seen every stepping stone on the sides of the mountain. Everything she has seen is Brahman, and everything she has not seen is Brahman. Every stepping stone is Brahman. The mountain is Brahman. The vista is Brahman. The climber is Brahman. All things are Brahman, and no one thing is Brahman.
One God, many names and forms
While Hindus believe that there is only one Supreme Source (Brahman), God of everything, at the same time, Hindus also affirm that Brahman can be called by many names, thought of in many forms, and worshipped in many ways. In allowing for this diversity, Hindus worship one God under many names. In the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu scripture, the principle is expressed in this way: ““Truth is One; the wise call it by many names (ekam sat vipraha bahuda vadanti).””
To understand the many names and forms of God in Hinduism, we can look at the land where Hinduism developed. India is a country with many regions, languages, cultures, customs, and practices. Under the umbrella of Hinduism, a term coined by Westerners attempting to understand this diversity, individuals and communities have called God by different names and thought of God in various forms for centuries. Each tradition and practice has both ancient roots and modern expression. In the state of Maharashtra, for example, Ganesha is the popular form of God, while in Bengal, God is worshipped as a mother in the form of Kali. Brahman is understood as infinite truth, while individual deities are expressions of various aspects of that truth.
It is also helpful to remember that the different forms and names of God in Hinduism may also represent different functions of God. While focusing attention and devotion on one aspect or function, the believer still acknowledges the many other aspects and the infinite possibilities. Each individual chooses one or more of these aspects of Brahman to be the object of their devotion. The Hindu doctrine of ishtadeva, which is Sanskrit for “chosen God,” “implies deep commitment, emotionally and intellectually, to one’s choice, knowing that others have chosen the same God under different names and conceptions.” In this context, Hindus refer to three main Gods: Brahma the creator, Vishnu, the protector, and Shiva, the one who causes all things to change, and literally thousands of other Gods and Goddesses, each worthy of devotion as aspects of the one God,
Brahman, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva
Brahma, the creator, is often depicted in art as having four faces, although you can only see one at a time, because each face points in one of the four directions of a compass. Brahma made the universe as we know it, and is God of wisdom. Brahma sees all things and understands all things. It is important to note that unlike the other names and forms of God found in Hinduism, Brahma is rarely worshipped. Brahma has a female consort or aspect, named Saraswati. She is concerned with art, music and literature.
Vishnu is the protector and sustainer. Over the eons, Vishnu has come to the earth ten times in order to save and protect. Each time Vishnu has come, the destiny of the universe has been at stake, and Vishnu has performed a mighty deed or action in defense of the world. He has come as Matsya, the fish; Varaha, the boar; Vamana, the dwarf; and as Krishna, among others. Vishnu also has a wife, Lakshmi. She represents the aspects of God concerned with beauty and good luck. Vishnu is often depicted with four arms, holding in each hand an object which represents care and provision for the world.
Shiva is the destroyer, the one who causes all things to change. Shiva makes certain that night ends so that day may begin and day ends, in order that night may begin again. Shiva also causes the changes of the seasons, and controls birth and death. Shiva holds all things in balance and is often seen dancing within a circle which depicts the ebb and flow of all the energy of the world. Shiva, too, has four arms to show the power and reach necessary to accomplish the many tasks which Shiva has done. When Shiva dances, he dances on the back of ignorance.
There are many other names and forms for God. Parvati, Shiva’s consort, is the mother of Ganesha, the boy with the elephant’s head. Ganesha is the patron of travelers and the remover of obstacles. Parvati has come in many forms as well. She is the Great Mother, and she is the Goddess of war. In the Ramayana, one of the great epics, Rama, another avatar of Vishnu, is born on earth as a royal prince. Hanuman, Rama’s faithful servant, helps to defeat evil in the story of Rama and his wife, Sita, as they strive to be good, loyal and kind. Rama, Sita, and Hanuman are worshipped within Hinduism, each representing different aspects of God.
To an outsider, all these aspects of God may seem confusing at first, in exactly the way that the mountain climber may find the path unfamiliar. But careful attention and respect is shown to each of the Gods as Hindus meets them in the stories and finds them meaningful for their journey. Hindus are freely encouraged and instructed to perform puja: worship and devotion to any and all of the names and forms of God within Hinduism, for any and all of these may aid the jiva in the journey to moksha.
Puja may be performed in temples, in nature, or in front of home altars. The term also refers to specific rituals in which God is welcomed into the home as the honored guest. Mutris (objects or statues with specific form and shape designed to express the nature of God) are often employed as a focus for devotion. By looking at a statue of Ganesha, devotees may learn more of the nature of Ganesha. Hindus study the mutri as one might study a sacred text, reading the image for its deeper meaning. In puja, the care and devotion given to the mutri are understood to be tangible offerings to the intangible God.
The Four stages of life:
student, householder, retiree, wandering holy one
The Vedas teach that human beings journey through four stages of life . In each stage, the soul must face the responsibilities given and fulfill them. The four stages are the life of the student, the life of the householder, the life of retirement, and the life of the wandering holy one. In every stage, teachers, called gurus, may play an important role in guiding the jiva toward moksha, but the guru can not do the work of individual jiva. Each soul must discover and climb the mountain for themselves.
In the first stage of life, as a student, the youth is trained for the responsibilities of the adult life that lies ahead. It is the time for the acquisition of skills and knowledge, habits and a strong character. Hindu youths are trained in order that they might face the responsibilities of the future stages of life with strength and courage. Youth is understood as a time of apprenticeship, when knowledge is tested, tried, proven and transformed into skillful ability.
In the second stage of life, householding, individuals learn to satisfy three basic human desires. The desire for pleasure, called kama, is satisfied principally through family and marriage, the desire for success, artha, is satisfied through career or vocation, and the desire for duty or responsibility, dharma, is satisfied through participation in the life of the greater community. Hindus hope that all of these desires are fulfilled and satisfied because as these desires are fulfilled, another need and desire is born: the desire for moksha, liberation. Once the soul has achieved pleasure, success and responsibility, this new longing for liberation is born. Individuals begin to ask for meaning, to look for a philosophy of life. It is the time when, according to Hindu wisdom, the heart and mind turn to questions which cannot be answered from sources outside the self. Attention must turn inward, toward the inner life. One will ask, perhaps for the first time, “Who am I? Who is, what is, where is Brahman?” Hindus in this stage of life will begin to ponder the mysteries of the Vedas with a deeper awareness of and appreciation for the fleeting pleasures, duties, and concerns of any one lifetime.
The final stage of life is that of the wandering holy one, the sanyassa. Toward the end of this lifetime, the jiva may seek to let go of, to renounce, all that has preoccupied life. The individual seeks only to find the deepest connections to Brahman and fulfill the true aim of Hinduism: awareness that we are one. The distinctions of youth, its strength and agility, no longer hold the same charm. The prestige of the householder, with all the pleasures, duties, and responsibilities, no longer seems important. Even the inner search of retirement was limited in its scope. In the final stage of life, the lesson is one of mystery and one-ness. According to the sacred texts, in this final stage, souls may satisfy their deepest longing: moksha, true liberation from the cycles of life and death.
Hindu practice and tradition
Approximately 900 million Hindus live in the world today. Hindu practice varies widely, by location, age, occupation and a host of other particularities. However, Hinduism affirms that just as Brahman may be expressed or understood in many forms, individual believers may express and travel the faith journey in a multitude of ways. The tradition honors the infinite, the universal, the all-encompassing Brahman and affirms that no human soul will be forsaken. The Hindu tradition of honoring diversity and multiplicity affirms that ultimately all souls will come to know what was revealed to the rishis: “Truth, knowledge and infinity is Brahman.”