Hinduism, Development of

Hinduism, Development of

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Who were the first Hindus? When and where did they live? There are two different theories, and recent archeological discoveries have fueled a great deal of controversy.

The standard academic theory holds that 3,500 years ago, when Indo-European Aryans (see Aryans) either invaded or migrated to India by way of the famous Khyber Pass through the Himalayas, they found a stone-age people whose agricultural way of life was already ancient. Archaeologists have discovered many goddess figurines, usually an indication of religious agricultural/fertility practices, and even an ancient seal engraved with a figure sitting in a yoga position.

The Aryans brought with them the world's first scriptures, the Vedas (see Agni), which contained the stories and rituals of their people. These people were tribal and migratory. They had domesticated the horse and invented the chariot, so they must have been fierce competitors in battle.

The Vedas describe an enigmatic religious ritual called the fire sacrifice. We don't know much about it except that it consisted of drinking soma, a hallucinogenic drink, possibly derived from mushrooms. They also introduce us to Indra and Agni, two of the principal gods of Hinduism.

This historical period has been labeled the Vedic period, and it lasted until the beginning of the Brahmin period, about 300 BCE. During this time, social and religious systems began to develop. That period marked the beginning of numerous settled communities, the caste system, religious temples, and formal rituals of worship.

But there is another theory, and recent discoveries in the north of India seem to lend scientific support to it. Hinduism just might prove to be much older than scholars thought, and to have arisen completely independent of Aryan cultural influence—in fact, predating it by centuries.

In a country where history can be traced back more than five thousand years, it has long been the practice of rulers to link their regimes to the tales of glorious bygone eras. The notion of Aryan roots seems to smack of white, British influence.

The year 1947 had brought independence from British rule, and religion and politics have been intertwined ever since. Hindu pride caused nationalists to fight fiercely for positions of power in both spheres. In 1992, a sixteenth-century Muslim mosque was destroyed by an angry mob that was convinced the mosque had been built on the site of an ancient Hindu temple thought to be the birthplace of the supreme god, Rama. Two thousand people died in the ensuing riots. In 1998 a powerful coalition of Hindu nationalists began to combine religious fundamentalism with secular politics. One question at the heart of the conflicts is whether Hinduism could have a historical identity unique to the Indus Valley, predating any Aryan influence from outside.

Historians and scientists have used several methods in their attempts to discern the truth. One has been to examine ancient texts. Until recently most of them have been considered simply mythological in nature. The events they describe happened so long ago that they were thought to be made-up tales of an earlier time. One of them, for instance, describes a mythological causeway that connected India and Sri Lanka. According to the story, the causeway enabled Hanuman, the monkey god, free access to rescue a captured Hindu goddess. As soon as you have a story involving a "monkey god," it's easy to dismiss the whole story as a fanciful religious myth. But satellite images (whose veracity is questioned by some) have revealed what has been labeled Hanuman Bridge, ancient evidence that the supposedly mythological causeway did, indeed, exist. This possible discovery prompted the Indian government, in 2002, to launch an investigative expedition to plot the former course of the purportedly mythological Saraswati River, which was supposed to have disappeared thousands of years ago.

Perhaps the ancient texts were, indeed, describing an early Hindu culture that predated any Aryan invasion. If this proves to be so, the Aryans didn't "invent" early Hinduism. They merely conquered it. One aim of all this study is to "prove" the Hindu nationalists' belief that Hinduism developed independent of any outside help, right on the subcontinent of India, with no help from any Aryans. There have long been puzzling, nagging questions about the standard academic position. What about that stone age seal with the meditating yogi in the lotus position? If Hinduism formed after the Aryan invasion, where did this early, obviously religious figure fit into the scheme?

It has been said that there are thirty-three million gods in India. But it must be remembered that since Brahman is All (see Brahman/Atman), all gods are ultimately faces of Brahman. Brahman is not even a god. He is an undefined principle. So the gods are ways of expressing or visualizing the inexpressible.

Although we cannot possible identify all Hindu gods, there are a few who deserve special mention. Brahma (the masculine "a" ending distinguishes him from the neuter "n" of Brahman), Vishnu (see Avatar), and Shiva are the principal gods of the Trimurti ("Trio," or perhaps "Trinity"). These are the most important gods of the Hindu pantheon.

Brahma is the Creator. Although he is very respected, he has only about a halfdozen temples built in his honor. The reason is simply that he worked himself out of a job a long time ago. He is no longer present much on Earth because creation is finished, and he really doesn't have anything to do. He meditates on the lotus blossom growing from the navel of Vishnu, who sleeps on the cosmic ocean made up of the remains of the last universe before this one. When Brahma opens his eyes to look around, a world comes into existence. One day in the life of Brahma is four billion, three hundred and twenty years, or one world cycle. Then he closes his eyes, the world disappears, and when he opens them, another cycle begins. (Scientists believe the world is already about five billion years old. That's longer than one world cycle— Brahma may soon be stirring!)

Vishnu is the preserver. He is the god of goodness. An old story about him says that a sage was once sent to determine who was the strongest god. The sage came across Brahma, insulted him, and was severely trounced. So he moved on to Shiva, only to be soundly abused. By the time he finally found Vishnu, the sage was in no mood to put up with any more surly gods. Vishnu was asleep on the cosmic ocean, of course, so the sage marched right up and kicked him. When Vishnu woke up he immediately worried that the sage might have hurt his foot, kicking Vishnu awake. So Vishnu began to massage the sage's sore foot. The sage was impressed and declared Vishnu to be the most powerful God.

Vishnu comes to Earth when needed. His incarnations are called avatars (see Avatar). Hindus say there will be ten of them. Two of the most important are Rama and Krishna (see Bhagavad-Gita), heroes of old now worshiped as divine. The ninth avatar occurred when Vishnu was incarnated as the Buddha. The tenth is yet to come. In uncanny similarity with Revelation 19:11-19 of the Christian Bible, in his final incarnation Vishnu will appear as Kalkin, riding a white horse and wielding a flaming sword, to separate the righteous from the wicked.

Shiva is the destroyer, but not in an evil sense. It is more like the presence of death that comes to all things. The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" Shiva is seen in the falling leaf and the dying breath. He is the God of yogis and ascetics.

He is also lord of the dance. Many statues picture him in this capacity, his four arms outstretched, dancing on the back of a turtle, which often has a human face. In this personification, he is called the Auspicious One who represents the Absolute Being. Shiva, as lord of the dance, pounds his drum louder and louder, accompanying all the changes of the world, until finally its vibrations shatter the cosmos into its primal elements; it then re-forms, as Brahma opens his eyes, into a new world.

When Shiva is visualized as a master yogi, he sits high in the Himalayas atop Mount Kallas. He is covered in white ash, the symbol of fire that has burned away passion. The holy Ganges River (see Ganges) flows from his matted hair. His concentration is such that the world would fade like a dream if he were to cease his meditation even for a moment. His wife, it is told, once came up quietly behind him and placed her hands over his eyes. Immediately the stars began to go out. She quickly left him to his meditation.

Shiva is also the life force represented by the phallic symbol of the lingam, the upright shaft around which the wheel of samsara turns. Here he is seen as life spirit, the will to live and continue.

Shiva is married to Shakti ("power"). Shakti, also called Kali or Parvati, Annapurna, and Durga, is the great goddess. Her symbol is the yoni, and she represents all that exists in the material world. She is the goddess in all her many and varied moods. She will give birth to a child, nurture it at her breast, and then wring its neck. Nature is fickle, indeed, and India revels in extremes. Light and dark are equally celebrated, for that is the nature of life.

Agni and Indra (see entries on each) are ancient gods who seem to have been Aryan imports. Agni, the god of fire, has been internalized to represent the power of the life force burning within. Indra, hero of what might be the prime Hindu myth, is a warrior god similar to Yahveh of the Hebrews or Zeus of the Greeks.

These are five of thirty-three million gods in India, but it cannot be emphasized enough that they are all faces of the one eternal, inexpressible principle called Brahman, the One.

So is Hinduism polytheistic, pantheistic, or monotheistic? The answer depends on how you choose to interpret the material.

In terms of how Hindus understand human beings and their place in the great scheme of things, perhaps it is most instructive to begin with three words: dharma, karma, and moksha.

Dharma refers to the order of the cosmos and the moral, ethical behavior of those in it. Karma describes the effects of our actions upon this life and all lives to come. Moksha is liberation of the soul from the illusion and suffering of samsara, the wheel of life. It is the final absorption of Atman into Brahman, the self into the One.

Dharma imposes karma until the release of moksha. Perhaps a simple illustration can best explain how the terms work together. Dharma describes what will happen if you fall off a cliff. Karma determines whether or not you fall. Moksha is the final step off the cliff.

Each lifetime determines karmic consequences for the next life and is the result of karmic consequences of the last. What you do effects what you will be. The idea is to build positive karmic consequences in this life so you don't have to relearn lessons for the next.

The scriptures of Hinduism reveal the slow development of its philosophy. The Vedas were written beginning about 1500 BCE. They tell of the gods and their myths. The Rig-Veda consists of religious poetry. More than one thousand hymns are addressed to the devas, or "shining ones." The Sama-Veda, Yagur-Veda, and AtharuaVeda, a compilation of incantations and spells, complete the set of four, combining to become the oldest scriptures in the world.

Sometime around 500 BCE, the Upanishads began to be written, probably as a response to Buddhism. They detail the Brahman-Atman philosophy, the practice of Om meditation, and the four levels of consciousness already discussed. These became the philosophical section of the Vedas, intended only for serious students. In effect, they moved Hinduism inward to the mind, thus embodying what is known as "intellectual" Hinduism.

The Upanishads describe two great principles: the Way of Society (the Laws of Manu) and the Way of the Yogi (Yogi Sutras).

The Way of Society (The Laws of Manu)

There are four "ends of man": kama (pleasure), artha (gain), dharma (righteousness), and moksha (liberation). These roughly correspond to the ashramas, the four stages of life: student, householder, hermit, and renunciant.

They work something like this over the course of a person's life:

When we are young our duty is to get an education and do the things young people must do. We sow our wild oats and try different philosophies. Above all, we gather like-minded friends about us and go about the business of embarking on the journey of life. We go to parties, debate our elders, meet potential mates, and generally have a good time.

But there comes a time when we realize it's time to settle down. We get married, have kids, move to the suburbs, buy a house, get a dog, put up a white picket fence, and join the PTA. We have entered the second stage of life. We are householders.

But after a few years this begins to pale. Mid-life crises begin. We turn inward. We start to ask what life is all about. We discover our spiritual side. We don't want to go out with the group as much. A night at home, reading a good book, starts to sound more exciting than the party down the street or the school committee meeting. We begin to realize our time is limited. There may be a lot of it left, but we come to understand that life is not eternal. People begin to ask, Where have you been keeping yourself these days? Well, we have entered the third stage of life. Our idea of a great vacation is to retire to a quiet room to read, unplug the phone, contemplate meaning, and practice our newfound spirituality. We begin to understand why some people go off to become hermits.

Finally, simply retiring from activity may not be enough. Although Western tradition has usually required people to stay at least somewhat active in community affairs, in India it was not uncommon for a man to renounce his possessions, leave his grown-up family, and hit the road, becoming a traveling sannyasin, a wandering monk who has cut himself off from society in order seek meaning and spiritual wisdom. It is said that the transformation of the renunciant is complete when he is given food and sustenance by one who was formerly his servant.

(Perhaps this understanding of the stages of life will help explain why there is such a vast difference between the social attitudes of America and those of such places as India. Traditional Hindus look upon a typical materialistic American lifestyle as stunted growth, evidence that such people have never grown up past the second stage of maturity and have not understood that it is impossible to accumulate enough goods to provide happiness. The average retired American lives off accumulated goods and investments. To traditional Hindus, this is backward. They do not respect a lifetime of accumulated wealth. Such a lifestyle represents spiritual poverty and is to be pitied. Meanwhile, many Westerners think of India as being full of impoverished people who can and should better themselves. As in all such sociopolitical issues, this is much too simplistic a generalization. But it points out a basic difference of religious opinion. Judeo-Christian tradition tends to view wealth as a proof of God's blessing. Hinduism sees it as the spiritual poverty of selfishness.)

The Way of the Yogi (Yogi Sutras)

This scripture details techniques of hatha yoga through a process consisting of eight steps, called limbs:

Nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and non-greed Purity, contentment, mortification, study, and devotion Posture Breath control Withdrawal of attention from the senses Concentration Meditation Contemplation The limbs are envisioned as being "centered" and brought up through the seven chakras (see Chakra), or centers of energy located from the base of the spine to the top of the head, in a spiritual exercise of meditation called yoga.

The Way of Society and the Way of the Yogi come together in the scripture called Bhagavad-Gita, or Song of the Lord (see Bhagavad-Gita), itself a portion of a longer epic called Mahabharata, in which the lord Krishna specifies the method of spiritual progress.

To learn all that is contained in these scriptures involves the work of many lifetimes, and it helps to study under the guidance of a guru (see Guru), a spiritual teacher. In a tradition of devotional Hinduism that comes out of the Middle Ages, the guru will help determine the best bhakti, or spiritual path, that will aid you on your journey of spiritual discipline leading to moksha, when you finally lose your egocentricity and become one with Brahman.

Like most traditions, Hinduism has divided and changed, been added to and adapted. It has spawned great social evils, such as the caste system, and bettered countless lives. In some ways, it predated modern, scientific explanations for the origin of the cosmos and modern psychology by thousands of years. It has changed over the years, while at the same time retaining essential human truths, such as the stages of life, that go a long way toward explaining how to live in today's world. It has been described as an organic system, rather than a religion.

The lowly cobbler Ravidas, poet and mystic, in his World of Illusion, voices one view of what it is to be human in a world growing increasingly complex every day:

There is but One God. He is obtained by the True Guru's grace. When there was egoism in me, Thou wert not with me. Now that Thou art there, there is no egoism, As huge waves are raised by the wind in the great ocean, but are only water in water. O Lord of wealth, what should I say about this delusion? What we deem a thing to be, in reality it is not like that.

And Lalla, a mystic of Kashmir, pens a very human response:

With the help of the gardeners Mind and Love, plucking the flower called Steady Contemplation, offering the water of the flood of the Self's own bliss, worship the Lord with the sacred formula of silence!

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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