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The Vedas collectively form the scriptural authority for everything. As literature they form the oldest piece of recorded human experience on earth. They talk about God, Nature, Man, morality, the Ultimate Reality of human experience, what happens after death, external life of joy and an overflowing vitality, internal mental struggle in every man between good and evil, rituals to propitiate the gods of the heavens, and man's duties to the gods of the cosmos. They contain long beautiful poems of praise of the Divine and several records of spiritual experiences by great thinkers called Rishis in ancient times. This last part is called the Upanishads, which are the most treasured philosophical treatises, discussions and discourses on fundamental matters of life and death, mind and soul, bondage and freedom, the transient and the ephemeral, and the ultimate purpose of life. While affirming life to the full, they refuse to become a victim and slave of life. To quote Rajaji's eloquent eulogy of the Upanishads,

The spacious imagination, the majestic sweep of thought, and the almost reckless spirit of exploration with which, urged by the compelling thirst for truth, the Upanishad teachers and pupils dig into the 'Open Secret' of the universe, make this most ancient of the world's holy books still the most modern and most satisfying.

Another point in the central core of the Hindu teaching is the transmigratory career of man's soul. Man's soul travels from body to body in its journey of evolution. Though man is essentially divine, the divine is clothed in material external coverings and is camouflaged by the cloud of dirt accumulated by the mind. Mind clings to the soul in a subtle way throughout the latter's transmigratory journey. Mind is a nebulous thing that keeps on accumulating impressions, habits and channels of thinking. These constitute the Vasanas of the mind or of the person to whom it clings for the moment. Vasana means smell. These Vasanas give the individual his mental personality even before his upbringing in this life starts having an effect on him. It is something over which you have no control, because it is your past. It is something for which you have a share of responsibility, because it is the result of your own past thoughts and actions. This past also determines your level of evolution as of now and also your present tendencies for human behaviour. The spiritual level of this evolution was categorized by Hindu thought into four (and no more than four) categories called varnas. This classification was done only for spiritual pursuits and purposes. But historically Man brought havoc by misusing the varna system for social and sociological purposes, invented a host of taboos, multiplied the divisions into numerous 'castes' and this resulted in the present condemnable caste system. But the reforms of the past three centuries, advances in science and technology resulting in changes in life-styles and an opening-up of horizons unfolded by the geographical shrinking of the world itself -- all these have contributed to minimise the sociological evils of the caste system; though, however, on the political front, the evils still pertain with all their venom.

In Hinduism heaven and hell are not eternal concepts. Extreme merit takes the soul to heaven after it leaves its earthly body. Extreme demerit in the same way takes the soul to hell. Note that in both situations the soul has to have a new body so that it may experience what it has to experience. But the important point of it all is that there is no eternal heaven or hell. One goes to heaven because of some good things he has done in this birth. After the experience is over one has to come back to this world of earthly experience to continue the soul's journey to perfection. The same story with hell.

Let us now continue our account of the basics. If you bring in, along with your birth, inherent tendencies that are bad, you have to contend with them and fight them yourself. This is the obligation implied in karma theory. The word karma simply means action; but in this context it connotes the entire aggregate of all past actions and thoughts, not only in this life but in all past lives. As far as the future is concerned you are totally free to do what you will and to create new vasanas and new karma for yourself. But if you are going to be carried away by the existing vasanas in your system and they happen to carry you into undesirable avenues it is nobody's fault except yourself. In this sense you are the architect of your fate. But in the sense that your tendencies are born with you and you have had no control over them when you were born (just as you did not choose your parents or your sex), to that extent you are ruled by your fate. The enigma of the theory of fate in Hinduism can be put into the following capsule: While the past controls, monitors and influences you, the future is in your hands. While the common man of ancient India may not have understood all these nuances of karma theory it must be said to the credit of those ancient times that the business of philosophy was not confined to a few philosophers or highbrows. Philosophy was an essential part of the religion of the masses. It percolated to them in various ways, and created the philosophic outlook, examples for which are plenty in the history of the land. It is this which gave them a sense of purpose and the courage to face trial and misfortune without losing one's gaiety or composure.

In man's eternal journey to perfection, the ultimate aim is to shed off all the vasanas of the mind, so that the mind in its pristine, unloaded, crystalline purity may reflect the presence of Divinity which, the vedas assure us, is there in every one of us. For this upward path towards perfection, in addition to emphasizing certain basic virtues like purity, humility, self-control and truth, Hinduism emphasizes two more, namely, non-violence and detachment. Non-violence stems from the fact that everything is but a spark of divinity and therefore no harm should be done, as far as possible, to anything that is living. Detachment is non-attachment to anything which is not ultimately permanent. What is impermanent? Anything that is amenable to sense perception is impermanent. What is not amenable to sense-perception? The Ultimate Reality is the one that is not amenable to sense perception. This is the common substratum of existence both in the microcosmic and in the macrocosmic universe. In other words, our possessions, our kith and kin, our body, our senses, our mind, our intellect -- none of these is ultimate. The substratum of all these is the ultimate Spiritual Reality, called Brahman, the Supreme Godhead. Whether this Godhead is personal or impersonal is the point of contention between the Absolutist and non-Absolutist schools of philosophy. The Transcendent Personality postulated by the non-Absolutist schools, namely, Vishnu or Siva, can be easily understood and imagined by even the novice to Hindu thought, because, in a sense it is not much different from the Father in Heaven of Christianity. While the Absolutist school accepts such a Transcendent Personality along with Its superlative attributes, the only addition that the school makes is to say that this is not all. The thinking of the Absolutist school goes somewhat as follows. The crystallisation of this thinking and the propagation of it on a national scale were done by India's greatest philosopher-poet-saint-mystic-reformer of all times, Sankara.

Sankara (509 - 477 B.C.E.) (Western scholars place him in 788-820 C.E.) Coming almost first in a line of great Acharyas of the advaita philosophy, Sankara was an immaculate sage who was divine and yet human, whose saving grace was universal in its sweep and whose concern was for all - even for the lowliest. Within a short span of 32 years, he travelled the length and breadth of India more than twice. He wrote elaborate commentries, called Bhashyas, on the Authority-triad. By sheer power of intellect and moral energy he vanquished numerous sects of Hinduism which were only compromises of one sort or another. He founded five mutts (at Sringagiri in Karnataka, at Puri in Orissa, at Badrinath in Uttarpradesh, at Dwaraka in Gujarat and at Kanchi in Tamiland) to carry forward the torch of enlightenment and service which continue even today to promote this cause. The unbroken line of Sankaracharyas in these mutts has brought his teachings from generation to generation right to the present generation. A life-size statue of Sankara may be seen within the Kamakshi temple at Kanchipuram, where he shed his mortal coil.

The Ultimate is further beyond. It is impersonal. It is nameless and formless. Naming it with a particular name Brahman is itself a slip of rigour, though intended. Brahman comes from the word 'to transcend, to be great' and so it connotes that colossus which transcends all that we know and which bestrides everything in the narrow world of our experience. But the moment we think of it as a God to be worshipped, we have already brought, by our limited intellect, a subject-object relationship in respect of the ultimate Godhead which has no second. We have actually violated the uniqueness of Brahman, the moment we think of it.

If we are to cite a parallel to this in our experience, the only thing we may refer to is modern physics. The moment we observe a subatomic particle, what we observe has already been influenced by our observation.

Our very definition of Brahman says that you cannot predicate anything of it except that it is. You cannot say that it is large or small, black or white, you cannot point to it and say it is this or that, you cannot possess it, you cannot relate to it. The Upanishads get out of this bottleneck by postulating what they call a saguna Brahman, meaning, Brahman with attributes. This is nothing but the Ultimate Reality looked at from our world of experience. The other name for this is Isvara. This is the Almighty that corresponds to the unique God of other religions and to the Transcendent Personality of the other schools of philosophy. This Almighty is the God whom we can think of, worship, invoke, revere, relate to, pray to and in this sense it is the ultimate God of the Hindus. This has all the superhuman and superlative qualities that we usually associate with God - namely, infinite mercy, infinite compassion, infinite grace and infinite potentialities.

Now comes the subtle point of significance for idol worship. According to scriptures, God is both transcendent and immanent, as well as omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. By giving it one single name or form we are only delimiting its omnipresence and transcendence. No name or form will exclusively describe it. By that very reason, say the vedas, all names and forms suit it. This is the thin end of the wedge. In other words, the totality of things that are perceptible in the universe is permeated by God. Everything is divine. Divinity is inherent in everything that we see, smell, hear, touch or feel. In fact it is in every one of us. It is this inseparable unity of the material and the spiritual world that constitutes the foundation of Indian culture and that is what determines the whole character of Indian social ideals.

A few more words on the immanence aspect of the Supreme. In a sense, this is one of the most distinguishing features of Hinduism. Throughout, the one message that the Upanishads are never tired of repeating is: Man is essentially divine. Not only man's core essence is divine, but divinity is immanent in everything in the universe. Figuratively, the Upanishads say: He has hands and feet everywhere. He has eyes and heads everywhere. He stands as a colossus, as it were, spanning everything. Another way of saying this is: It is not enough to say that God is everywhere; God is the only thing everywhere. This is the plea of the Upanishads. Another way of looking at this immanence is this. Where is this ultimate God? Is He inside space or outside space? He is declared by the Upanishads to transcend all conceptions of space and time. So He cannot be 'inside' the universe or space. If it is contended then that He is 'outside' space, that also does not make sense because space itself is a creation of God. So He is neither inside nor outside. The only way of resolving this issue is to consider whether Space itself is He. This is what exactly the Upanishads proclaim. The entire universe is nothing but the 'expression' of that Supreme Divinity. In other words, what we see, hear, or smell, or touch or taste is all nothing but Divinity. It is this conviction that is, according to the Upanishadic Seers, the consummation of all spiritual quest.

But the question that still arises about this immanence is: How can good and bad people have both God equally immanent in them? Should you not postulate degrees of immanence? No. God is equally immanent in every one and everything. But in the case of conscious entities like ourselves, the goodness or badness depends on the quality of the outer covering that is made up particularly of the mind and its accumulated vasanas. It is the mind that is the villain of the piece.

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Copyright. V. Krishnamurthy October 7, 2000

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