The History of Hinduism
How Do You Define Hinduism?
It is not easy to define Hinduism, for it is more than a religion in the Western sense. Hinduism can best be defined as a way of life based on the teachings of ancient sages and scriptures like the Vedas and the Upanishads. The word dharma connotes “that which supports the universe” and effectively means any path of spiritual discipline which leads to God. Hinduism is also known by the names Sanatana Dharma and Vaidika Dharma. Sanatana Dharma means the eternal religion. Vaidika Dharma means the religion of the Vedas.
Hindu Dharma, as one scholar analogises, can be compared to a fruit tree, with its roots representing the Vedas and the Upanishads, the thick trunk symbolising the spiritual experiences of numerous sages and saints, its branches representing various theological traditions, and the fruit itself, in different shapes and sizes, symbolising various sects and subsects. However, the concept of Hinduism defies a definite definition because of its uniqueness.
A Religion of Freedom
Hinduism allows absolute freedom to the rational mind of man. Hinduism never demands an undue restraint upon the freedom of human reason, the freedom of thought, feeling and will of man. It allows the widest freedom in matters of faith and worship. It allows absolute freedom to the human reason and heart with regard to questions such as the nature of God, soul, creation, form of worship, and goal of life. It does not force or prevent anybody to reflect, investigate, enquire, and cogitate. Hence, all sorts of religious faiths, various forms of worship or Sadhana, diverse kinds of rituals and customs, have found their honourable place side by side within Hinduism, and are cultured and developed in harmonious relationship with one another. Hinduism does not dogmatically assert that the final emancipation is possible only through its means and not through any other. It is only a means to an end, and all means which will ultimately lead to the end are equally approved. The religious hospitality of Hinduism is proverbial. Hinduism is extremely catholic and liberal. This is the fundamental feature of Hinduism. Hinduism pays respects to all religions. It does not revile any other religion. It accepts and honours truth, wherever it may come from and whatever garb it may put on.
The Hindu Scriptures
The Sruti and the Smriti are the two authoritative sources of Hinduism. ‘Sruti’ literally means ‘what is heard’, and ‘Smriti’ means ‘what is remembered’. Sruti is revelation; Smriti is tradition. What is revealed is Sruti. Upanishad is a Sruti. What is remembered is Smriti. Bhagavad-Gita is Smriti. Sruti is direct experience. Great Rishis heard the eternal truths of religion and left a record of them for the benefit of posterity. These records constitute the Vedas. Hence, Sruti is primary authority. Smriti is a recollection of that experience. Hence, it is secondary authority. The Smriti is a recollection of that experience. Hence, Sruti is secondary authority. The Smriti or Dharma Shastras are founded on the Sruti. They also are books written by sages, but they are not the final authority. If there is anything in a Smriti which contradicts the Sruti, the Smriti is to be rejected. Bhagavad-Gita also is a Smriti. So is Mahabharata, too.
The Vedas and the Upanishads
Srutis are called the Vedas or the Amnaya. These are direct intuitional revelations and are held to be Apaurusheya or entirely superhuman, without any author in particular. The Vedas are eternal truths revealed by God to the great ancient Rishis of India. The word ‘Rishi’ means ‘a seer’. The Rishis saw the truths or heard them. Therefore the Vedas are called Sruti or what are heard. The Rishi did not write. He did not create it out of his mind. He was the seer of the thought which existed already. He was only the spiritual discoverer of the thought.
The Rishis are not the inventors of the Veda. They were only a media to transmit to people the intuitional experiences which they received. The truths of the Vedas are revelations. All the other religions of the world trace their authority to having been delivered by special Messengers of God or prophets, but the Vedas do not owe their authority to anyone. They are themselves the authority as they are eternal. The Vedas are the oldest books in the library of man. They are the ultimate source to which all religious knowledge can be traced.
The Upanishads are the concluding portions of the Vedas, or the end of the Vedas. The teaching based on them is called Vedanta. The Upanishads are the gist, the goal of the Vedas. They form the very foundation of Hinduism. The most important Upanishads are Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasn, Mundaka, Mandukya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Chhandogya, Brihadarnayaka, Kaushitaki and Svetasvatara. These are supremely authoritative. The different philosophers of India belonging to different schools such as Advaita, Qualified Monism or Visishtadvaita, Dualism, Pure Monism, Bhedabheda, etc., have acknowledged the supreme authority of the Upanishads. They have given their own interpretations, but they have obeyed the authority. They have built their philosophy on the foundation of the Upanishads. The philosophy of the Upanishads is sublime, profound, lofty, and soul-stirring. The Upanishads reveal the most subtle spiritual truths.
Even the Western scholars have paid their tribute to the seers of the Upanishads. They have been amazed at the lofty heights scaled by the Upanishads. Schopenhauer studied the Upanishads and meditated on the thoughts of the Upanishads just before going to bed. He said: “The Upanishads are the solace of my life, and they will be solace to me after my death also”. The teachings of the Rishis of yore do not pertain to Hindus alone. They are of an all-embracing, universal nature. They are meant for the people of the whole world. The Gita and the Upanishads are books for the people of the whole world.
Emphasis on Practice
Hinduism provids spiritual food for all sorts of people to suit their temperaments, capacities, tastes, stages of spiritual development, and conditions of life. It prescribes Yoga Sadhana to attain God-realisation, while doing ones ordinary avocation in the world. Hindu yoga and Vedanta teachers lay great stress on self-restraint, meditation, renunciation and practical Sadhana, which is best to control the mind and the senses and unfold the Divinity within or attain Self-realisation. Yoga is eminently practical to practise.
Religion is the practical aspect of philosophy. Philosophy is the rational aspect of religion. The philosophy of Hinduism is not armchair philosophy. It is not meant for intellectual curiosity and vain discussion. Hindu philosophy is a way of life. The philosopher of Hinduism seriously reflects after hearing the Srutis, does Atma-Vochara, constantly meditates, and then attains Self-realisation or Atma-sakshatkara. Moksha is his goal. He attempts to attain Jivanmukti now and here.
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