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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Distinctive Features of Sanathan Dharama

Our religion has a number of unique or distinctive features. One of them is what is called the theory of karma, though this theory is common to religions like Buddhism which are offshoots of Hinduism.

What is the karma doctrine? For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. There is an ineluctable law of physics governing cause and effect, action and reaction. This law pertaining to physical phenomena our forefathers applied to human life. The cosmos includes not only sentient beings endowed with consciousness but also countless insentient objects. Together they constitute worldly life. The laws, the dharma, proper to the first order must apply to the second also. According to the karma theory, every action of a man has an effect corresponding to it. Based on this belief our religion declares that, if a man commits a sin, he shall pay the penalty for it. Also if his act is a virtuous one, he shall reap the benefits thereof.

Our religion further asserts that one is born again and again so as to experience the consequences of one's good and bad action. "Do good. " "Do not do evil, " such are the exhortations of all religions. But Hinduism (and its offshoots) alone lay stress on the cause-and -effect connection. No religion originating in countries outside India subscribes to the cause-and-effect connection, nor to the reincarnation theory as one of its articles of faith. Indeed religions originating abroad hold beliefs contrary to this theory and strongly oppose the view that man is born again and again in order to exhaust his karma. They believe that a man has only one birth, that when his soul departs on his death it dwells somewhere awaiting the day of judgment. On this day God makes an assessment of his good and bad actions and, on the basis of it, rewards him with eternal paradise or sentences him to eternal damnation.

Some years ago, a well-known writer from Europe came to see me nowadays you see many white men coming to the Matha. This gentleman told me that the Bible stated more than once that God is love. He could not reconcile this with the belief that God condemns a sinner to eternal damnation without affording him an opportunity for redemption. On this point a parade had told him: "It is true that there is an eternal hell. But it is eternally vacant. "

The padre's statement is difficult to accept. Let us suppose that the Lord in his compassion does not condemn a sinner to hell. Where then does he send his soul? Since, according to Christianity, there is no rebirth the sinner is not made to be born again. So he too must be rewarded with heaven (as much as the virtuous man). This means that we may merrily keep sinning without any fear of punishment. After all, God will reward all of us with heaven. This belief implies that there is no need for morality and truthfulness.

According to our religion too, Isvara who decides our fate after death on the basis of our karma is infinitely merciful. But, at the same time, he does not plunge the world in adharma, in unrighteousness- that is not how his compassion manifests itself. What does he do then? He gives us another birth, another opportunity to reap the fruits of our good and bad action. The joys of heaven and the torments of hell truly belong to this world itself. The sorrow and happiness that are our lot in our present birth are in proportion to the virtuous and evil deeds of our past birth. Those who sinned much suffer much now and, similarly, those who did much good enjoy much happiness now. The majority is made up of people who know more sorrow than happiness and people who experience sorrow and happiness almost in equal measure. There are indeed very few blessed with utter happiness. It is evident from this that most of us must have done more evil than good in our past birth.

In His mercy the Lord gives us every time a fresh opportunity to wash away our sins. The guru, the sastras, and the temples are all his gifts to wipe away our inner impurities. That Isvara, in his compassion, places his trust even in a sinner confident that he will raise himself through his own efforts and gives him a fresh opportunity in the form of another birth to advance himself inwardly- is not such a belief better than that he should dismiss a sinner as good for nothing and yet reward him with heaven? If a man sincerely believes, in a spirit of surrender, there is nothing that he can do on his own and that everything is the Lord's doing, he will be redeemed and elevated. But it is one thing for God to bless a man who goes to him for refuge forsaking his own efforts to raise himself and quite another to bless him thinking him to be not fit to make any exertions on his own to advance inwardly. So long as we believe in such a thing as human endeavour we should think that Isvara's supreme compassion lies in trusting a man to go forward spiritually through his own efforts. It is in this way that the Lord's true grace is manifested.

That God does not condemn anyone to eternal punishment in hell is the personal opinion of a particular padre. It cannot be said that all religions like Christianity which believe that a man has only one birth agree with this view. They believe that God awards a man hell or paradise according to the good or evil he has done in one single birth. Since sinners who deserve to be condemned to hell predominate, the day of judgment has come to be known by the terrible name of doomsday. Here we have a concept according to which the Lord's compassion seems to be circumscribed.

There is strong evidence to support the reincarnation theory. A lady from the West came to see me one day and asked me if there was any proof of reincarnation. I did not have any discussion with her on the subject. Instead, I asked her to visit the local obstetric hospital and find out all about the children born there. There was a learned man who knew English where we were camping then. I asked him to accompany the lady. Later, on their return from the hospital, I asked the woman about her impressions of the new- born children. She said that she had found one child plump and lusty, another skinny; one beautiful and another ungainly. One child was born in a comfortable ward [that is to a well-to-do mother] and another to a poor mother.

"Leave aside the question of God consigning a man to eternal hell after his death, " I said to the foreign lady. "We are not witness to such a phenomenon. But now you have seen with your own eyes how differently the children are born in the hospital that you visited. How would you account for the differences? Why should one child be born rich and another poor? Why should one be healthy and another sickly? And why should one be good-looking and another not so good looking?

"If you accept the doctrine that men are born only once, you cannot but from the impression that God is neither compassionate nor impartial- think of all the differences at birth- and that he functions erratically and unwisely. How are we to be devoted to such a God and have the faith that he will look on us with mercy? How are we to account for the differences between one being and another if we do not accept the doctrine that our life now is determined by the good and the bad we did in our past births. " The lady from the West accepted my explanation.

Such an explanation is not, however, good enough for people in modern times. They demand scientific proof of reincarnation. Parapsychologists have done considerable research in the subject and their findings are in favour of the theory of rebirth. During the studies conducted in various parts of the world they encountered people who remembered their past lives. The latter recalled places and people they had seen in their previous birth-places and people that have nothing to do with them now. The parapsychologists verified these facts and to their amazement found them to be true. The cases investigated by them were numerous. Most of us are wholly unaware of our past lives, but some do remember them. According to the researchers the majority of such people had been victims of accidents or murder in their previous lives.

The doctrine of the incarnations of the Lord- avataras- is another unique feature of our religion. The Reality (Sadvastu) is one. That It manifests itself as countless beings is one of our cardinal tenets. It follows that it is this one and only Reality that transforms itself again and again into all those beings that are subject to birth and death. Also it is the same Reality that is manifested as Isvara to protect this world of sentient beings and insentient objects. Unlike humans he is not subject to the law of karma. It is to live out his karma- to experience the fruits of his actions- that man is born again and again. But in birth after birth, instead of washing away his old karma, he adds more and more to the mud sticking to him.

If the Lord descends to earth again and again it is to lift up man and show him the righteous path. When unrighteousness gains the upper hand and righteousness declines, he descends to earth to destroy unrighteousness and to establish righteousness again- and to protect the virtuous and destroy the wicked. Sri Krsna Paramatman declares so in the Gita.

Isvara is to be known in different states. That the Lord is all- that all is the Lord- is a state that we cannot easily comprehend. Then there is a state mentioned in the "vibhuti yoga"of Gita according to which the Lord dwells in the highest of each category, in the "most excellent" of things. To create the highest of excellence in human life he sends messengers to earth in the guise of preceptors (acaryas), men of wisdom and enlightenment (jnanins), yogins and devotees. This is another state in which God is to be known. Not satisfied with the previous states, he assumes yet another state: he descends to earth as an avatara. The word "avatarana" itself means "descent". Isvara is "paratpara", that is "higher than the highest", "beyond what is beyond everything". Yet he descends to earth by being born in our midst to re-establish dharma.

Sindhanta Saivas do not subscribe to the view of Siva having avataras. Nor they agree with the belief that Adi Sankara and Jnanasambandhar were incarnations of Siva and Muruga (Subrahmanya) respectively. Their view is that if Isvara dwells in a human womb, in a body of flesh, he makes himself impure. According to Advaitins even all those who inhabit the human womb made up of flesh are in substance nothing but the Brahman. They see nothing improper in the Lord coming down to earth.

All Vaisnavas, without exception, accept the doctrine of divine avataras. Philosophically speaking, there are many points of agreement between Vaisnavas and Saivas though the former are not altogether in agreement with the view that it is the Brahman itself that is expressed as the individual self. When we speak of the avataras, we generally mean the ten incarnations of Visnu. Vaisnavas adhere to the doctrine of avataras because the believe that Visnu descends to earth to uplift humanity. Indeed it is because of his boundless compassion that he makes himself small [or reduces himself] to any degree. In truth, however, the Lord is neither reduces nor tainted a bit in any of his incarnations because, though in outward guise he looks a mortal, he knows himself to be what in reality he is.

Altogether the Vedic dharma that is Hinduism accepts the concepts the concept of incarnations of the Lord. Saivas too are one with Vaisnavas in believing in the ten incarnations of Visnu.

That the one and only Paramatman who has neither a form nor attributes is manifested as different forms with attributes is another special feature of our religion. We worship idols representing these forms of deities. For this reason others label us polytheists. There view is utterly wrong. Because we worship the one God, the one reality, in many different forms it does not mean that we believe in many gods. It is equally absurd to call us idolaters who hold that the idol we worship is God. Hindus with a proper understanding of their religion do not think that the idol alone is God. The idol is meant for the worshipper to offer one-pointed devotion and he adores it with the conviction that the Lord who is present everywhere is present in it also. We see that practitioners of other religions also have symbols for worship and meditation. So it is wholly unjust to believe that Hindus alone worship idols- to regard them with scorn as idolaters is not right.

That ours is the only religion that does not proclaim that its followers have an exclusive right to salvation is a matter of pride for us Hindus. Our catholic outlook is revealed in our scriptures which declare that whatever the religious path followed by people they will finally attain the same Paramatman. That is why there is no place for conversion in Hinduism.

Christianity has it that, if a man does not follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, he shall be condemned to hell. Islam says the same about those who do not follow the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. We must not be angry with the adherents of either religion on that score. Let us take it that Christians and Muslims alike believe that followers of other religions do not have the same sense of fulfillment as they have. So let us presume that it is with good intentions that they want to bring others into their fold (Christianity or Islam as the case may be) out of a desire to help them.

Let us also assume that if they resort to means that seem undesirable, it is to achieve what they think to be a good objective, luring others into their faith. It was thus that they carried out conversions in the past, by force of arms. Islam, particularly, expanded its sway in this way. It is often said that Christianity spread with the help of money power. But Christians also used their army to gain adherent, though with the force of arms was associated the philanthropic work of the missionaries. White men had the advantage of money that the Muslims of the Arabian desert did not possess. Christian missionaries built schools, hospitals and so on to induce the poor to embrace their faith.

We may not approve of people being forced into a religion or of conversions carried out by temptations placed before them. But we need not for that reason doubt that those who spread their religion in this fashion really believe that their work will bring general well-being.

We cannot, however, help asking whether their belief is right. People who do not follow either Christ or the Prophet, are they really condemned to hell? A little thinking should show that the belief that the followers of Christianity or Islam have an exclusive right to salvation cannot be sustained. It is only some 2, 000 years since Jesus was born and only about 1, 400 years or so since the birth of the Prophet. What happened to all the people born before them since creation? Are we to believe that they must have passed into hell? We are also compelled to infer that even the forefathers of the founders of Christianity and Islam would not have earned paradise. If, like Hindus, all those who lived before Christ or the Prophet had believed in rebirth, we could concede that they would have been saved: they would have been again and again until the arrival of Christ or the Prophet and then afforded the opportunity of following their teachings. But if we accept the logic of Christianity and Islam, according to which religions there is no rebirth, we shall have to conclude that hundreds of millions of people for countless generations must have been consigned to eternal hell.

The question arises as to whether God is so merciless as to keep dispatching people for ages together to the hell from which there is no escape. Were he compassionate would he not have sent, during all this time, a messenger of his or a teacher to show humanity the way to liberation? Why should we worship a God who has no mercy? Or for that matter, why should there be any religion at all?

The countries are many and they have different climates and grow different crops. Also each part of the world has evolved a different culture. But the Vedas encompassed lands all over this planet from the very beginning. Latter other religions emerged in keeping with the changing attitudes of the nations concerned. That is why aspects of the Vedic tradition are in evidence not only in the religions now in force but in what we know of those preceding them. But in India alone has Hinduism survived as a full-fledged living faith.

It must also be added that this primeval religion has regarded- and still regards- with respect the religions that arose subsequent to it. The Hindu views is this: "Other religions must have evolved according to the degree of maturity of the people among whom they originated. They will bring well being to their adherents. " "Live and let live" has been and continues to be the ideal of our religion. It has given birth to religions like Buddhism and Jainism and they [particularly Buddhism] have been propagated abroad for the Atmic advancement of the people there.

I have spoken about the special characteristics of Hinduism from the philosophical and theological points of view. But it has also another important feature which is also distinctive- the sociological.

All religions have their own philosophical and theological systems. Also all of them deal with individual life and conduct and, to a limited extent, with social life. "Look upon your neighbour as your brother. " "Regard your adversary as your friend. " Treat others in the same way as you would like to be treated yourself. " "Be kind to all creatures. " "Speak the truth. " "Practice non-violence. " These injunctions and rules of conduct relate to social life up to a point- and only up to a point. To religions other than Hinduism social life or the structure of society is not a major concern. Hinduism alone has a sturdy sociological foundation, and its special feature, "varnasrama dharma", is an expression of it.

Varna dharma is one and asrama dharma is another (together they make up varnsrama dharma). Asrama dharma deals with the conduct of an individual during different stages of his life. In the first stage, as a brahmacarins, he devotes himself to studies in a gurukulas. In the second stage, as a youth, he takes a wife, settles down in life and begets children. In the third, as he ages further, he becomes a forest recluse and, without much attachment to worldly life, engages himself in Vedic karma. In the forth stage, he forsakes even Vedic works, renounces the word utterly to become a sannyasin and turns his mind towards the Paramatman. These four stages of life or asramas are called brahmacarya, garhasthya, vanaprastha and sannyasa.

Varna dharma is an "arrangement" governing all society. It is very much a target of attack today and is usually spoken of as the division of society into "jatis". But "varna" and "jati" are in fact different. There are only four varnas but the jatis are numerous. For instance, in the same varna there are Ayyars, Ayyangars, Roas, etc - these are jatis. Mudaliars, Pillais, Reddiars and Naikkars are jatis belonging to another varna. In the Yajurveda (third astaka, fourth prasna) and in the Dhamasastra a number of jatis are mentioned- but you do not meet with them today.

Critics of Varna dharma brand it as "a blot on our religion" as "a vicious system which divides people into high and low". But, if you look at it impartially, you will realize that it is a unique instrument to bring about orderly and harmonious social life.

Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi MahaSwami

The Vedas - the Root of All

Our religion consists of two major divisions, Saivism and Vaisnavism. The doubt arises as to whether we are speaking here of two separate faiths or of a single one.

Christianity too has two major divisions but people belonging to both conduct worship in the name of the same God. In Buddhism we have the Hinayana and Mahayana streams but they do not make two separate faiths since both are based on the teachings of the same founder, the Buddha.

Do Saivas and Vaisnavas worship the same god? No. However it be with ordinary Vaisnavas, their acaryas or teachers never go anywhere near a Siva temple. Their god is Visnu, never Siva. In the opinion of the worshippers of Visnu, Siva is also one of his (Visnu's) devotees. There are extremists among Saivas also according to whom Visnu is not a god but a devotee of Siva. How then can the two groups be said to belong to the same religion?

Are they to be regarded as belonging to the same faith by virtue of their having a common scripture? The divisions [sects] of Christianity have one common scripture, the Bible; so too is the Qur'an the common holy book for all divisions of Islam. Is such the case with Saivas and Vaisnavas? Saivas have the Tirumurai as their religious text, while Vaisnavas have the Nalayira-Divyaprabandham as their sacred work. For Saivas and Vaisnavas thus the deities as well as the scriptures are different. How it be claimed that both belong to the same religion?

Though divided into Saivas and Vaisnavas, we have been saved by the fact that the white man brought us together under a common name, "Hindu". But for this, what would have been our fate? In village after village, we would have been fragmented into separate religious groups- Saivas, Vaisnavas, Saktas, worshippers of Muruga, Ganapati, Ayyappa, and so on. Further, in these places followers of religions like Christianity and Islam would have predominated. Now two regions of our subcontinent have become Pakistan, Had we not been brought together with the label of Hindu, the entire subcontinent would have become Pakistan. The very same men who created Pakistan through their evil design and sowed the seeds of differences among us with their theory of two races- Aryans and Dravidians- unwittingly did us a good turn by calling us Hindu, thereby bringing into being a country called "India. "

So are we one religion or are we divided into Two faiths? The belief that Saivas and Vaisnavas have separate deities and religious works does not represent the truth. Though the present outlook of the two groups suggests that they represent different faiths, the truth will be revealed if we examine their prime scriptures. The saints who composed the Tirumurai of the Saivas and the Nalayira-Divyaprabandham of the Vaisnavas never claimed that these works of theirs were the prime religious texts of respective sects. Nor did they regard themselves as founders of any religion. Vaisnavism existed before the Azhvars and so too there was Saivism before the Nayanmars.

The original scripture of both sects is constituted by the Vedas. Saivas describe Isvara thus:


Vedanathan, Vedagitan, aranan kan

Similarly, the Vaisnava texts proclaim, "Vedam Tamizh seytaMaran Sathakopan. "If we pay close attention to their utterances, we will discover that the Vedas are the prime scripture of both sects. The Tevaram and the Nalayaira-Divyaprabandham are of the utmost importance to them (to the Saivas and Vaisnavas respectively); but the Vedas are the basis of both. The great saint-poets who composed the Saiva and Vaisnava hymns sing the glories of the Vedas throughout. Whenever they describe a temple, they go into raptures, saying, "Here the air is filled with the sound of the Vedas and pervaded with the smoke of the sacrificial fire. Here the six Angas of the Vedas flourish. " In the songs of these hymnodists veneration of the Vedas finds as much place as devotion to the Lord.

The Vedas reveal the One Truth to us in the form of many deities. The worship of each of these divine beings is like a ghat on the river called the Vedas. Sekkizhar says the same thing: "Veda neri tazhaittonga mihu Saivatturai vilanga. "

Apart from Saivism and Vaisnavism, there are a number of sectarian systems like Saktam, Ganapatyam, Kaumaram, and Sauram (worship of Sakti, Ganapati, Kumara or Subrahmanya and the Sun God). The adoration of these deities is founded in the Vedas, according to the Texts relating to them: "Our deity is extolled in the Vedas, " each system contains such a declaration.

Thus we find that there is but one scripture as the source common to the different sects and schools of thought in the Hindu religion.

This source includes the Upanisads. On ten of them (Dasopanisad) the great teachers of the Saiva, Vaisnava, and Smarta traditions have written commentaries. The Upanisadic texts proclaim that the Brahman is the one and only Godhead: In the Kathopanisad it is called Visnu; in the Mandukyopanisad it is called Sivam. All the deities mentioned in the Samhitas of the Vedas- Mitra, Varuna, Agni, Indra and so on - are different names of the same Truth. So it is said in the Vedas: "Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti. "

It emerges that for all the divisions in our religion there is but one scripture- a scripture common to all- and one Godhead which is known by many names. The Vedas are the common scripture and the Godhead common to all is the Brahman. Thus we can say with finality, and without any room for doubt, that all of us belong to the same religion.

The Vedas that constitute the scripture common to all and which reveal the Godhead that is common to us also teach us how to lead our life, and- this is important- they do us the ultimate good by showing us in the end the way to become that very Godhead ourselves. They are our refuge both here and the hereafter and are the source and root of all our different traditions, all our systems of thought. All sects, all schools of our religion, have their origin in them. The root is one but the branches are many.

The Vedas are the source not only of various divisions of Hinduism, all the religions of the world may be traced back to them. It is our bounden duty to preserve them for all time to come with their glory undiminished.

Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi MahaSwami

The Unity of Religions

All religions have one common ideal, worship of the Lord, and all of them proclaim that there is but one God. This one God accepts your devotion irrespective of the manner of your worship, whether it is according to this or that religion. So there is no need to abandon the religion of your birth and embrace another.

The temple, the church, the mosque, the vihara may be different from one another. The idol or the symbol in them may not also be the same and the rites performed in them may be different. But the Paramatman who wants to grace the worshipper, whatever be his faith, is the same. The different religions have taken shape according to the customs peculiar to the countries in which they originated and according to the differences in the mental outlook of the people inhabiting them. The goal of all religions is to lead people to the same Paramatman according to the different attributes of the devotees concerned. So there is no need for people to change over to another faith. Converts demean not only the religion of their birth but also the one to which they convert. Indeed they do demean God.

"A man leaves the religion of his birth because he thinks there is something wanting in it," so you may think. 'Why does the Svaamigal say then that the convert demeans the new religion that he embraces? " I will tell you why. Is it not because they think that God is not the same in all religions that people embrace a new faith? By doing so, they see God in a reduced form, don't they? They presumably believe that the God of the religion of their birth is useless and jump to another faith. But do they believe that the God of their new religion is a universal God? No. No. If they did there would be no need for any change of faith. Why do people embrace a new faith? Is it not because that the continuance in the religion of their birth would mean a denial of the blessings of the God of the new faith to which they are attracted? This means that they place limitations on their new religion as well as on its God. When they convert to a new religion, apparently out of respect for it, they indeed dishonour it.

One big difference between Hinduism and other faiths is that it does not proclaim that it alone shows the path to liberation. Our Vedic religion alone has not practiced conversion and the reason for it is that our forefathers were well aware that all religions are nothing but different paths to realise the one and only Paramatman. The Vedas proclaim: "The wise speak of the One Truth by different names. " Sri Krsna says in the Gita: "In whatever way or form a man worships me, I increase his faith and make him firm and steady in that worship. " And says one of the Azhvars: "Avaravar tamatamadu tarivari vahaivahai avaravar iraiyavar". This is the reason why the Hindus have not practiced- like adherents of other religions- proselytisation and religious persecution. Nor have they waged anything like the crusades or jehads.

Our long history is sufficient proof of this. All historians accept the fact of our religious tolerance. They observe that, an empire like Srivijaya was established in the East, people there accepted our culture and our way of life willingly, not because they were imposed on them by force. They further remark that Hinduism spread through trade and not through force.

In my opinion the Vedic religion was once prevalent all over the world. Certain ruins and relics found in various regions of the planet attest to this fact. Even historians who disagree with my view concede that in the past people in many lands accepted Indian culture and the way of life willingly and not on account of any force on our part.

All religions that practice conversion employ a certain ritual. For instance, there is baptism in Christianity. Hinduism has more ritual than any other religion, yet its canonical texts do not contain any rite for conversion. No better proof is needed for the fact that we have at no time either encouraged conversion or practiced it.

When a passenger arrives at a station by train he is besieged by the driver of the horse-cart, by the rikshavala, by the cabbie, and so on. He hires the vehicle in which he likes to be driven to his destination. It cannot be said with reason that those who ply different vehicles are guilty of competing with one another for the fare. After all it is their livelihood. But it makes no sense for the adherents of various faiths to vie with one another to take a man to the one and only destination that is God.

There is a bridge across a river, consisting of a number of arches, each of them built to the same design and measurement. To the man sitting next to a particular arch it would appear to be bigger than the other arches. So is the case with people belonging to a particular religion. They feel that their religion alone is great and want others to join it. There is in fact no such need for anyone to leave the religion of his birth for another.

That the beliefs and customs of the various religions are different cannot be a cause for complaint. Nor is there any need to make all of them similar. The important thing is for the followers of the various faiths to live in harmony with one another. The goal must be unity, not uniformity.
Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi MahaSwami