The Eternal Way of Life (Sanathana Dharma)
"The Eternal Way", or the "Perennial Philosophy/Harmony/Faith", is the one name that has represented Hinduism for many thousands of years. According to Hindus, it speaks to the idea that certain spiritual principles hold eternally true, transcending man-made constructs, representing a pure science of consciousness. But this consciousness is not merely that of the body or mind and intellect, but of a
soul-state that exists within and beyond our existence, the unsullied Self of all. Religion to the Hindu is the native search for the divine within the Self, the search to find the One truth that in actuality never was lost. Truth sought with faith shall yield itself in blissful luminescence no matter the race or creed professed. Indeed, all existence, from vegetation and beasts to mankind, are subjects and objects of the eternal Dharma. This inherent faith, therefore, is also known as Arya/Noble Dharma, Veda/Knowledge Dharma, Yoga/Union Dharma, Hindu Dharma or, simply, the Dharma.
A Little History
All the dates that I will give are according to western scholars and not what many Hindus themselves believe. Roots of Hinduism go back to at least 2500 BC to the Indus valley civilization which lasted to about 1900 BC. The writing of the era is not yet deciphered so much of what has been said is speculative but there are figurines of mother goddess and a Shiva (a God of Hindu trinity) like figure in Yogic posture (meditation pose) attest to the fact that the beginnings of Hinduism are here. The people of Indus valley had cities with as many as 40,000 people with planned streets, a sewer system and bathing tanks. A large number of seals with writing on them have been found.
Around 1750 BC, it is believed that Indo-Europeans who call themselves, Aryas come upon the scene. They are Sanskrit speaking, nomadic, war-faring people. They ride horses and have chariots. Up until this time there is no evidence of horses on the subcontinent. Their Chief God is Zeus-like Indra, the God of the thunder-bolt, They have holy books called “Vedas.” These are probably world’s most ancient books. There are four Vedas; chief amongst them is the Rigveda which consists of 1028 Suktas or songs. Individual verses of the Suktas or called Mantras. These earliest parts of the Vedas are called Samhitas or collections. The Aryas worship powers of nature like fire, waters, thunder, sun, moon and so on but there are many hymns in the Vedas which indicate that all the gods that they worship are really manifestation of the same basic reality which is called , “Brahman.” A famous line says, “There is only one truth but the Wise call it by many names.” Main mode of worship is sacrifice. Both animal and vegetable offerings are made to the fire which through its flames takes the offerings to the gods above. Mantras from the Rigveda are used to invoke Gods. The verses from the Vedas are used to this day for the main rites of birth, marriage and death etc.
Around 900 BC, books called Brahmanas are composed which try to explain the significance of rituals. A little later Aranyakas (the forest books) and lastly the Upanishads (the philosophical parts of the Vedas) are composed. The roots of more elaborate philosophical and theological systems developed later are in the Upanishads. Vedic literature consists of Sanmhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads.
Buddha comes around 500 BC. Buddha Dharma is partly a rebellion against the ritualistic religion of the Vedas. Actually so are the Upanishads but they emphasize the internal sacrifice of your ego, pride, greed, lust and so on rather than animals and grains.
The two epics Ramayana (the story of Rama) and Mahabharata (story of the great battle) are composed around 200 BC but tell of the events of about 1000 years earlier. Probably the most popular Hindu religious and philosophical work is Bhagavadgita. It is a short work of 700 verses which actually forms a chapter of the Mahabharata. Manusmriti, the Hindu Law Book was also written around first century BC. Books called Puranas (ancient lore and mythology) are written in the Gupta period which lasted from about 300 AD to 600 AD.
The religion of the Vedas goes through many transformations and syntheses to produce modern Hinduism. Probably the most formative years are 500 BC to 500 AD.
Ways of God/Self Realization
The Way of Knowledge: Constant meditation on the question, “Who am I?”
eventually makes one realize what one is seeking. What you are looking for is
your own true nature. Let me tell of a story to illustrate the point. Once there
was a lion cub lost in the forest and found by a goat herder who brought him up
with his goats. The cub grew up to bleat like a goat and eat grass. One day a
lion passed by and saw this strange phenomenon. The goats ran away leaving
behind cub. The lion asked the cub what he was doing with a bunch of goats. The
cub answered, “What do you mean? I am a goat.” The lion took him to river
and let him see that the cub was no goat but a lion and gave him a piece of meat
to eat. The cub gagged on it but once he got a taste of it, he gave his first
lion roar. We are all lions behaving like goats, not knowing our true nature.
The Way of Devotion: Worship the lord with all your heart and eventually you
will reach him.
The Way of Action: Perform all your actions in a detached way i.e. in a
disinterested manner, not seeking the fruit of your action but not falling into
sloth either. Leave the fruits of your actions to the lord.
The Way of Meditation: Our mind is like an ocean with our thoughts and emotions
like waves and ripples. If we can stop these ripples, the ocean becomes calm and
you can behold the joy of eternity.
The four goals of life
Another major aspect of Hindu dharma that is common to practically all Hindus is that of purushartha, the "four goals of life". They are
kama, artha, dharma and moksha. It is said that all humans seek kama (pleasure, physical or emotional) and artha (power, fame and wealth), but soon, with maturity,
should learn to govern these legitimate desires within a higher, pragmatic framework of dharma, or moral harmony in all. Of course, the only goal that is truly infinite, whose attainment results in absolute happiness, is moksha, or liberation, (a.k.a. Mukti, Samadhi, Nirvana, etc.) from Samsara, the cycle of life, death, and existential duality.
The four stages of life
The human life is also seen as four Ashramas ("phases" or "stages"). They are Brahmacharya, Grihasthya, Vanaprastha and Sanyasa. The first quarter of one's life, brahmacharya (literally "grazing in Brahma") is spent in celibate, sober and pure contemplation of life's secrets under a Guru, building up body and mind for the responsibilities of life. Grihastya is the householder's stage, alternatively known as samsara, in which one marries and satisfies kama and artha within a married life and professional career. Vanaprastha is gradual detachment from the material world, ostensibly giving over duties to one's sons and daughters, spending more time in contemplation of the truth, and making holy pilgrimages. Finally, in sanyasa, the individual goes off into seclusion, often envisioned as the forest, to find God through Yogic meditation and peacefully shed the body for the next life.
Views of God
Within Sanathana Dharma, or Hinduism (as it is commonly called), a variety of lesser gods are seen as aspects of the one impersonal divine ground, Brahman (not Brahma). Brahman is the ultimate, both transcendent and immanent, the absolute infinite existence, the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. Brahman is not a God in the monotheistic sense, as it is not imbued with any limiting characteristics, not even those of being and non-being, and this is reflected in the fact that in Sanskrit, the word
Brahman is of neuter (as opposed to masculine or feminine) gender.
Vedanta is a branch of Hindu philosophy which gives this matter a greater focus. Yoga is the primary focus in many ways of a Hindu's religious activities, being somewhere between meditation, prayer and healthful exercise.
Some of Hinduism's adherents are monists, seeing in multiple manifestations of the one God or source of being, which is often confused by non-Hindus as being polytheism. It is seen as one unity, with the personal Gods
as different aspects of only one Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into
colors by a prism, and are valid to worship. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva. Hindus believe that God, in whatever form they prefer, (or as monists prefer to call, "Ishta Devata,", i.e., the preferred form of God) can grant worshippers grace to bring them closer to Moksha, end of the cycle of rebirth. The great Hindu saint, Ramakrishna, a monist, was a prominent advocate of this traditional Hindu view. He had experienced many other religions besides Hinduism, such as Christianity and Islam and came to the same conclusion as said by the Vedas, "Truth is one, the wise call by different names."
The Four Major Sects of Hinduism
Contemporary Hinduism is traditionally divided into four major divisions:
Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Smartism.
Hinduism is a very rich and complex religion. Each of its four sects shares rituals, beliefs, traditions and gods with one another, but each sect has a different philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal
(Moksha, liberation) and on their views of the Gods. Each sect fundamentally believes in different methods of self-realization and in different aspects of the One Supreme God.
However, each sect respects and accepts all others, and conflict of any kind is rare.
Some sects of Hinduism believe in a monotheistic ideal of Vishnu (often as Krishna), Siva, or Devi; this view does not exclude other gods, as they are understood to be aspects of the chosen ideal (e.g., to many devotees of Krishna, Shiva is seen as having sprung from Krishna's creative force). Often, the monad Brahman is seen as the one source, with all other gods emanating
there from. Thus, with all Hindus, there is a strong belief in all paths being true religions that lead to one God or source, whatever one chooses to call the ultimate truth.
Shaivism is a branch of Hinduism that worships Siva as the Supreme God. Followers of
Shaivism are called
Saivites. Shaivism is a monotheistic faith. Saivites believe that there is only one God, who simultaneously permeates all creation and exists beyond it, being both immanent and transcendent. The concept is in contrast with many Semitic religious traditions, where God is seen as transcendent only. As all other Hindu denominations,
Shaivism acknowledges the existence of many lower Gods under the Supreme One. These Gods are encompassed by Him, seen as either as manifestations of the Supreme Being or as powerful entities who are permeated by Him, as is all Creation. This type of Monotheism is called Panentheism or Monistic Theism.
Saivism is a very deep, devotional and mystical sect of Hinduism. It is considered the oldest of the Hindu denominations, with a long lineage of sages and saints who have outlaid practices and paths aimed at self-realization and the ultimate goal of moksha, liberation. As a very broad religion,
Shaivism encompasses philosophical systems, devotional rituals, legends, mysticism and varied yogic practices. It has both monistic and dualistic traditions.
Saivites believe God transcends form, and devotees often worship Siva in the form of a lingam, symbolizing all universe. God Siva is also revered in
Shaivism as the anthropomorphic manifestation of Siva Nataraja.
Originated in India, Saivism has appeal all over India and is particularly strong in South India (especially, Tamil Nadu) and the island of Sri Lanka. Some traditions credit the spreading of
Shaivism into southern India by the great sage, Agastya, who is said to brought Vedic traditions as well as the Tamil language.
There can be found almost innumerable Saivite temples and shrines, with many shrines accompanied as well by murtis dedicated to Ganesa, Lord of the Ganas, followers of Siva, and son of Siva and Sakti.
Benares is considered the holiest city of all Hindus and Saivites. A very revered Saivite temple is the ancient Chidambaram, in South India. One of the most famous hymns to Siva in the Vedas is Shri Rudram. The foremost Saivite Vedic Mantra is Aum Namah Sivaya.
Major theological schools of Saivism include Kashmir Shaivism, Saiva Siddhanta and Virasaivism.
Shaktism is a denomination of Hinduism that worships Shakti, the Divine Mother, in all of her forms whilst not rejecting the importance of masculine and neuter divinity.
Shaktism as we know it today developed between the 4th and the 7th centuries CE in India. It was during this development that the many religious texts, known as the Tantras, were written.
One may consider themselves a Shakta (a devotee of Shakti), a Shaiva (a devotee of Shiva), and a Vaishnava (a devotee of Vishnu) all at the same time.
This form of Hinduism, known as is strongly associated with Vedanta, Samkhya and Tantra Hindu philosophies and is ultimately monist, though there is a rich tradition of Bhakti yoga associated with it. The feminine energy (Shakti) is considered to be the motive force behind all action and existence in the phenomenal cosmos in Hinduism. The cosmos itself is Brahman, the concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being, the "world soul". Masculine potentiality is actualized by feminine dynamism, embodied in multitudinous goddesses who are ultimately reconciled in one.
The keystone text is the Devi Mahatmya which combines earlier Vedic theologies, emergent Upanishadic philosophies and developing tantric cultures in a laudatory exegesis of Shakti religion. Demons of ego, ignorance and desire bind the soul in maya (illusion) (also alternately ethereal or embodied) and it is Mother Maya, shakti, herself, who can free the bonded individual. The immanent Mother, Devi, is for this reason focused on with intensity, love, and self-dissolving concentration in an effort to focus the shakta (as a Shakti worshipper is sometimes known) on the true reality underlying time, space and causation, thus freeing one from karmic cyclism. A common hymn describing the 1000 names of Devi is the Lalitha sahasranama.
Vaishnavism is the branch of Hinduism in which Vishnu or one of his avatars (i.e., incarnations) is worshipped as the supreme God and is a monotheistic faith.
Major branches of Vaishnavism include Srivaishnavism, (espoused by Ramanuja) who advocated Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita (espoused by Shri Madhvacharya) and Gaudiya Vaishnavism (espoused by Shri Caitanya Mahaprabhu adhered by ISKCON).
The distinction between this branch and others is made by those who study religion. However it may not always be clear to
practicing Hindus who often take freely from the practices of the different branches. It is likely that a majority (75-80%) of today's Hindus would consider themselves Vaishnava, if pressed to make a distinction. Of the remainder, most would probably consider themselves Saivites.
Vishnu and Shiva are sometimes visualized as a single divinity named Harihara.
Smartism is a denomination of the religion of Hinduism and is closely affiliated with the Advaita tradition. Smartism is monist in theological belief. Smartas (followers of Smartism) accept and worship all major forms of God, (Ganesha, Siva, Sakti, Vishnu, Surya and Skanda). Following a meditative, philosophical path, the denomination is generally considered to be liberal and non-sectarian.
In Smartism, devotees pray to whatever form of God a devotee prefers, (or as monists prefer to call, Ishta Devata, i.e., the preferred form of God) and ask for God's grace in order to achieve Moksha, end of the cycle of rebirth.
Notably, Shakti is worshipped to reach Shiva, whom for Shaktas is the impersonal Absolute. Additionally, Shaivites and Vaishnavites often regard Surya as an aspect of Shiva and Vishnu, respectively. For example, the sun is called Surya Narayana by Vaishnavites. In Saivite theology, the sun is said to be one of eight forms of Siva, the Astamurti. Additionally, Ganesh and Skanda for them, would be aspects of Shiva and Shakti. Hence, it appears to be the case that most Hindus worship Saguna Brahman as Vishnu or Shiva.