Throughout the history of Indian culture there has been a continuous interaction between the different religious, linguistic and social groups, and this has resulted in a richly textured mythology, rivalling the whole of the European corpus in quantity and diversity. An enormous bulk of narrative is preserved in the regional languages of India, but in the main the most popular myths have achieved wider currency by being adopted into the supra-regional language, Sanskrit, and collected together in the Puranas, which from the 4th Century onward took over from the epics (the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) as the great storehouses of religious and mythic traditions.
A characteristic feature of Indian thought is the process by which order is brought out of chaos and the universe dissolved back into chaos in an immense cyclic pattern. The oldest grouping of gods in the Vedic pantheon gave way, as the religion developed into Hinduism, to the concept of the trimurti, a formal grouping of Brahma with the two deities who later become dominant, Vishnu and Shiva: Brahma is held to be the originator, Vishnu the maintainer and Shiva the destroyer of the cosmos.
More recently, a grouping of five gods (Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Surya and Ganesha) has been preferred.
Hinduism has its roots in the interrelationship of two basic religious systems: that of the ancient civilization residing in the Indus River Valley from the third millennium B.C., and the religious beliefs brought to India by the Aryan people (possibly from the Baltic region) who began infiltrating the Indus Valley sometime after 2000 B.
C. The religion of the Aryans is described in the writings of “holy men” contained in the Vedas (meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom”). The Vedas are four collections of writings composed between about 1500 and 500 B.C., which form the basis for Hindu beliefs, and which reveal a gradual development of religious ideas. The later sections of the Vedas are known as the Upanishads. These Vedic writings are considered inspired. Later Hindu writings, including the renowned Bhagavad Gita, are of lesser authority, but widely popular.
An understanding of the Hindu beliefs about God is important even if we don’t know any Hindus or people from India because we are all in contact with the New Age movement, and it draws its ideas about God from Hinduism. What then do Hindus believe about God?
The early portions of the Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas describe a number of deities who for the most part are personifications of natural phenomena, such as storms and fire. Prayers and sacrifices were offered to these gods. An extensive system of priestly rituals and sacrifices was eventually developed which served as means of obtaining the blessing of these gods.
The later portions of the Vedas, called the Upanishads, reflect a significant development in Hinduism’s concept of the divine. Many of the Upanishads, instead of speaking of a multitude of gods, refer to an ultimate reality beyond our comprehension called Brahman. Though Brahman is impersonal in nature, it is sometimes referred to in personal terms by the name Isvara.
Along with this idea of a single divine reality, the Upanishads also teach that at the core of our being (referred to as “Atman”) we are identical with this ultimate reality.
A popular saying in Hinduism is “Atman is Brahman!” In fact, all living things are Brahman at their innermost core! In addition, instead of ritual sacrifice, intuitive knowledge of the oneness of all things came to be endorsed as the way of contact with divine reality. Also found in the Upanishads is the teaching that the material world (including our conscious personalities) is less than fully real. The word “maya” is used to designate the power by which God, or ultimate reality, brought this less than real world into existence.
Chief among the gods so venerated are Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the destroyer). In India there are many temples devoted to Shiva (or to one of his “wives,” such as Kali), or to Vishnu (or to one of his ten incarnations known as avatars).
Foundational Hindu Beliefs The first of these core beliefs is the doctrine of karma. The word karma means “action.” But the religious concept has more to do with the results or consequences of actions. The doctrine of karma states that every thought and action results in certain consequences born by the actor or thinker. If a person lies or steals, he will be wronged in some way in the future. Hindus believe that all suffering is due to one’s own past actions, in this or in a previous life. Some believe that karma implies strict determinism or fatalism (that one must simply resign himself to living out his karma). Most, however, believe that though our present is determined by our past, nonetheless we can influence our future by conducting ourselves in a proper manner in the present.
The second core belief of Hinduism is the doctrine of reincarnation, or transmigration of souls, called samsara. Since it is impossible that all of one’s karma be experienced in one lifetime, the Hindu scriptures state that after death individual souls are “reborn” in this world, in another body–human or otherwise. The nature of one’s rebirth is determined by the karma resulting from past actions.
Closely associated with the doctrine of reincarnation is that of ahimsa or non-injury to living things. This is the core moral value of Hinduism, the protection of all life (which is ultimately divine), and is the main reason why some Hindus are vegetarian.
Also associated with reincarnation is the caste system. According to Hindu teaching, there are four basic castes or social classes (and thousands of sub-groups within the castes). Each has its own rules and obligations pertaining to nearly every facet of life. At the top are the Brahmins or priests. Second in rank are the Kshatriyas or warriors and rulers. Third are the Vaisyas or merchants and farmers. Below these are the Shudras or laboring class. Salvation is possible only for the top three castes, who are called the “twice born.” Outside the caste system are the untouchables or outcastes. Though outlawed in India in the late 1940s, many in the countryside are still considered outcastes.
One’s caste is determined at birth by his or her own personal karma. Attempts, therefore, to bring about social change or to improve one’s social position would appear to run contrary to the law of karma and the caste system.
It’s little wonder that the chief aim of the Hindu is to experience release or liberation from this cycle of death and rebirth caused by karma. Hindus call this liberation moksha.
The chief aim in Hinduism is to gain release from the cycle of reincarnation caused by karma the consequences of past actions, in this or in previous lives.
Hinduism recognizes that in the course of many lifetimes people may legitimately give themselves to any of these goals. The first is the goal of pleasure or enjoyment, particularly through love and sexual desire. This is called kama. The second legitimate aim in life is for wealth and success. This is called artha. The third aim in life is moral duty or dharma. One who gives himself to dharma renounces personal pleasure and power, to seek the common good. The final aim in life, however, is moksha liberation from the cycle of lives in this material world, and entrance into Nirvana.
Hindus recognize three possible paths to moksha, or salvation. The first is the way of works or karma yoga. This is a very popular way of salvation and lays emphasis on the idea that liberation may be obtained by fulfilling one’s familial and social duties thereby overcoming the weight of bad karma one has accrued. The Code of Manu lists many of these rules. Most important among them are certain rituals conducted at various stages of life.
The second way of salvation is the way of knowledge or jnana yoga. The basic premise of the way of knowledge is that the cause of our bondage to the cycle of rebirths in this world is ignorance or avidya. According to the predominant view among those committed to this way, our ignorance consists of the mistaken belief that we are individual selves and not one with the ultimate divine reality called Brahman. It is this ignorance that gives rise to our bad actions which result in bad karma. Salvation is achieved through attaining a state of consciousness in which we realize our identity with Brahman. This is achieved through deep meditation, often as a part of the discipline of yoga.
The third and final way of salvation is the way of devotion or bhakti yoga. This is the way most favored by the common people of India; it satisfies the longing for a more emotional and personal approach to religion. It is self-surrender to one of the many personal gods and goddesses of Hinduism. Such devotion is expressed through acts of worship, puja, at the temple, in the home, through participation in the many festivals in honor of such gods, and through pilgrimages to one of the numerous holy sites in India. In the way of devotion, the focus is one obtaining the mercy and help of a god in finding release from the cycle of reincarnation. Some Hindus conceive of ultimate salvation as absorption into the one divine reality, with all loss of individual existence. Others conceive of it as heavenly existence in adoration of the personal God.
Buddhism is a philosophy of salvation, so in theory it has no use for mythology. In practice Buddhists in all countries have turned to the local mythologies to fill out their world-view. In India, where Buddhism began, ideas about the Buddha were clothed in the garments of Hindu mythology. The Hindu gods become spectators of and minor actors in the drama of Gautamas quest for understanding which culminated in his becoming the Buddha, the Enlightened One. With the emergence of the Mahayana around the beginning of the Christian era, mythological elements became much more prominent. The cult of Bodhisattvas became the basis for a flourishing Buddhist mythology, although the old motifs and stories still appear. At first, these Bodhisattvas seem mainly to have personified different aspects of the Gautamas character, but soon developed a very real identity. Maitreya typifies maitri (friendliness) : life under his is the Buddhist millennium, but meanwhile from the Tushita heaven he visit this world in various forms to save and teach.
Buddha (enlightened) Siddharta Gautama concluded that suffering of all kinds is an inescapable part of life. Suffering, omnipresent and endemic, is the hell that humanity needs to be set free from.
From it’s Hindu background, Buddhism accepted the basic idea of transmigration or reincarnation (‘samsara’), and of ‘karman’ or the load of endless cause and effect, yet with very little difference. It taught that the soul (‘atman’) does not move from body to body in it’s transmigration. Instead, it believed the individual soul to be composed of a number of physical and psychical elements (‘khandas’) that combine to give a sense of personal individuality. This combination of ‘khandas’ – the individual person – is “only temporary, and is irreparably shattered by death, leaving no element that can be identified as the soul or self”. It is the moral energy of one’s accumulated ‘karman’ (Sanskrit for ‘act’) that alone has continuity with the next life-cycle of birth and death. Thus, salvation is essentially the breaking of this continuity – an escape from the cycles of existence. Buddhism thus sees salvation as the complete obliteration of individual consciousness, called ‘nirvana’ (Sanskrit for ‘extinction’ or ‘blowing-out’).
Questions on the reality of this state of ‘nirvana’ or non-being are met with the answer that ultimate reality transcends all the terms of reference relevant to existence in this world.
Buddhism’s founder taught that desire is the root cause of all suffering. Salvation will thus be achieved only when all human passions have been extinguished, particularly the craving for existence. The Buddhist initiate had to – “by his own effort in seeking to eradicate desire for continued existence in the empirical world, achieve his own salvation.” The degree of discipline and self-denial required was virtually impossible for the layman, and consequently only monks had a real opportunity of succeeding. The present day equivalent of this Theravada, which has come down to us from one of the early eighteen schools. It is deprecatingly referred to as ‘Hinayana’ (Lesser Vehicle) Buddhism. It teaches tha t the way of salvation is – The Eightfold Path of:
However, the rigour of self-discipline required to achieve one’s own salvation, according to this teaching, appeared to be so beyond the reach of most people that a larger vehicle of enlightenment was developed – ‘Mahayana’. In Mahayana, in contrast to orthodoxy, an assurance of divine aid was provided.
Versions of Buddhism multiplied in this direction and soon many saviours (‘bodhisattvas’ or Buddhasto-be) were being believed-in for vicarious merit (like Roman Catholicism’s merit-treasury of the saints), and an eschatology developed of punishment and reward, in purgatories and paradises, as a prelude to achievement of the ultimate self-obliteration of nirvana.
However, in China, spreading to Japan, and now in the West also, a more ‘religionless’ form developed (Zen) which exploits the self-improvement urge of man through meditative training.
Jainism begins with a serious concern for the human soul in its relationship with the laws governing existence in the universe, with other living beings, and to its own future state in eternity. First and foremost, it is a religion of the heart: the golden rule is Ahimsa or nonviolence in all parts of a person mental, verbal, and physical. Jains have deep compassion for all forms of life
Jainism is a form of religion intermediate between Brahminism and Buddhism, originated in India in pre-Christian times, and has maintained its heretical attitude towards Brahminism down to the present day. The name is derived from jina, conqueror, one of the epithets popularly applied to the reputed founder of the sect. Jainism bears a striking resemblance to Buddhism in its monastic system, its ethical teachings, its sacred texts, and in the story of its founder.
Like Buddha, Jina was the son of a local raja who held sway over a small district in the neighbourhood of Benares. While still a young man he felt the emptiness of a life of pleasure, and gave up his home and princely station to become an ardent follower of the Brahmin ascetics. If we may trust the Jainist scriptures, he carried the principle of self-mortification to the extent that he went about naked, unsheltered from the sun, rain, and winds, and lived on the rudest vegetarian fare, practising incredible fasts. Accepting the principle of the Brahmin ascetics, that salvation is by personal effort alone, he took the logical step of rejecting as useless the Vedas and the Vedic rites. For this attitude towards the Brahmin traditions he was repudiated as a heretic. He gathered eleven disciples around him, and went about preaching his doctrine of salvation. Like Buddha he made many converts, whom he organized under a monastic rule of life. Associated with them were many who accepted his teaching in theory, but who in practice stopped short of the monastic life of extreme asceticism. These were the lay Jainists, who, like the lay Buddhists, contributed to the support of the monks.
Jainism offers a quiet, overwhelmingly serious way of life, a cultural insistence on compassion, a society of ethics that has dramatically changed the world and will continue to effect change. Jainism is an ecologically responsible way of life which is nonviolent in thought, action, and deed.
Jain religion is unique in that, during its existence of over 5000 years, it has never compromised on the concept of nonviolence either in principle or practice. It upholds nonviolence as the supreme religion (Ahimsa Paramo Dharmah) and has insisted upon its observance in thought, word, and deed at the individual as well as social levels. The holy text Tattvartha Sutra sums it up in the phrase “Parasparopagraho Jivanam” (all life is mutually supportive). Jain religion presents a truly enlightened perspective of equality of souls, irrespective of differing physical forms, ranging from human beings to animals and microscopic living organisms. Humans, alone among living beings, are endowed with all the six senses of seeing, hearing, tasting smelling, touching, and thinking; thus humans are expected to act responsibly towards all life by being compassionate, egoless, fearless, forgiving, and rational.
In short, the code of conduct is made up of the following five vows, and all of their logical conclusions:
Jain religion focuses much attention on Aparigraha, non possessiveness towards material things through self-control, self-imposed penance, abstinence from over-indulgence, voluntary curtailment of one’s needs, and the consequent subsiding of the aggressive urge.