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A Framework for Understanding HInduism

A Framework for Understanding Hinduism

 A few years ago a student taking the course began reading the chapter on Hinduism.  When he got about half way through the chapter, he posted a question to the bulletin board: "What am I reading?!?!? I can't make any sense out of this."  I suspect he wasn't alone. For those who are new to HInduism, it can be a confusing array of various, even seemingly contradictory ideas and practices.

So, I want to take a moment to frame this chapter and maybe make it a little more understandable.  At least, we can give the material a frameworkthat will hopefully make it a little more intelligible. To understand what is presented in the text, think of Hinduism as growing and changing in three historical stages: vedic religion, classical Hinduism, and Bhakti Hinduism.

 

 Part One: Vedic Religion: A way of ritual

                The earliest stage of Hinduism is usually classified as Vedic religion.  This is the religious practice and beliefs reflected in the earliest collections of scripture such as the Rig Veda.  In these ancient texts, we see a religion that is centered on fire sacrifice. The general concept is that sacrifice is a ritual that is necessary to keep the world going. Without these sacrifices to the gods, everything would descend into chaos – the social order as well as the natural order.   Sacrifices were thought to nourish and please the gods who then maintain order.  In fact, sacrifice is so important that one of the stories of the Rig Veda tells us that the world itself along with all the social order or the caste system was created through the sacrifice of a cosmic being, a giant named Purusha.

If sacrifices are the subject of the oldest collection of scriptures, the most important group are the priests who know the right words to say, that is the right mantras or verbal formulae,  as well as the correct way to perform the rituals.  For this reason, the priests are at the top of the social order.

At this point, Hinduism has very little to say about the afterlife, and it seems to be more focused on maintaining social and cosmic order.  In fact, many of the stories in these early collections tell how one of the gods defeated a threat to the natural order of the universe.  Interestingly, the prominent gods and goddesses in the older layer of Hinduism are not the ones that are most prominent later.

 

Part Two: Classical Hinduism: A way of knowledge

                By the middle of the first millennium, Hinduism seemed to enter a more reflective stage.  The writings from this period of time such as the Upanishads, reflect a more philosophic inquiry into the nature of existence, the nature of human beings. Sacrifice of course does not go away, but now focus on the spiritual meaning of sacrifice.  In fact, the Upanishads are interested in the meaning behind everything – the meaning behind life, even the meaning behind the gods themselves.

The answers formulated in the Upanishads were and still are profound. For example, they concluded  that all the gods were manifestations or representations of  a single reality  - the one God – the power of the universe- which was called Brahman. Second, they reasoned that if Brahman is the soul of the universe so to speak, he is present in all things – and especially in human.  Thus, the soul of human beings called the atman is nothing less than part of Brahman.

The major figure now is not the priest, but the sanyassi – the individual who renounces the world to meditate and seek wisdom.

 

 

Part Three: Bhakti Hinduism: The way of devotion to God

A third stage in Hinduism emerged near the beginning of the Common Era. The scriptures that reflect this stage are the epics such as the Bhagavad-Gita and the Ramayana as well as the poetic stories known as the Puranas.(These will be discussed in more detail below). These exciting and entertaining stories focus on devotion to a god the primary way of living faithfully. Part of this devotion is obedience - in particular obedience to the duties and responsibilities required of one's station in life.

At this point, we need to note an important connection between the way of devotion and the way of ritual. Remember that the purpose of the rituals and sacrifices in the Vedas was to maintain the cosmic order.  Without these sacrifices, it was thought that the cosmos itself would descend into chaos. In the Bhagavad-Gita and the Ramayana the notion is set forth that the social and cosmic order is maintained not so much by ritual, but by the Hindu concept of dharma: fulfilling the duties and responsibilities that are appropriate to one's place in life. Of course, in Hinduism the notion of order through ritual and order through faithful action are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. They are simply two paths to the same goal.

 Be Careful!

This connection between the way of devotion and the way of ritual should warn us that our framework is something of an oversimplification. In reality, things are much more complex.  Do not think that Hinduism somehow threw out everything from stage one when it entered stage two. The truth is, the old made room for the new, and the new somehow accommodated or absorbed the old.

The chart below will help you to organize your thinking about Hinduism         

 

Era

Focus

Practitioner

Scripture

Vedic (Way of Ritual)

Fire Sacrifice to maintain order

Priests (Brahmins)

Samhitas – earliest collection (Rig Veda, etc).

Classical Hinduism (Way of Wisdom)

Liberating realization of the true nature of atman and  Brahman

Sanyassin – the renunciate who seeks spiritual understanding

Aranyakas and Upanishads (latest collection in Vedas)

Devotional Hinduism

Devotion and obedience to a god/goddess

Any one

Puranas and the epics (Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana)