Column by NS Rajaram – Essence of Hinduism is spiritual freedom. It has no dogma or concept of heresy. Defending and nurturing spiritual freedom is the ideal that sustains India as a nation. India is the sacred land for those who revere this freedom. The first point to note is that the word ‘Hinduism’, like ‘India’ is of foreign origin. For people living outside India, especially in the Middle East, a Hindu is anyone who lives in India— which they see as the land beyond the Sindhu (Indus) River. In countries as far apart as Iran and Turkey, they refer to India as ‘Hindustan’ and to Indians as Hindus. They see it as a nationality and not a religion.
Further, Hinduism cannot be viewed as religion deriving its authority from a book or the teachings of a founder. The appropriate term for what we now call Hinduism is ‘Sanatana Dharma’. It is not a creed like Christianity or Islam, but a code of conduct and a value system that has spiritual freedom as its core. Any pathway or spiritual vision that accepts the spiritual freedom of others may be considered part of Sanatana Dharma. As Sri Aurobindo described it, Sanatana Dharma is also the basis of Indian nationalism.
Hinduism is anadi (beginning-less) and apaurusheya (has no human as authority)
- Hinduism is anadi (without beginning) and apaurusheya (non-human in origin)
The basis of Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma is the quest for cosmic truth, just as the quest for physical truth is the domain of science. The earliest record of this quest is the Rigveda. It is the record of ancient sages who by whatever means tried to learn the truth about the universe, in relation to Man’s place in the cosmos. They saw nature — including all living and non-living things — as part of the same cosmic equation. This search has no historical beginning. This is not to say that the Rigveda always existed as a literary work. It means that we cannot point to a particular time or person in history and say: “Before this man spoke, the Rigveda did not exist.” On the other hand, we can say this about Christianity and Islam, because they are historical religions.
This brings up another important facet of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism: it is apaurusheya, which means it is not originate in any man (purusha). That is to say it has no historical founder like Christianity has Jesus and Islam has Prophet Muhammad. We can say that Jesus is the purusha of Christianity while Muhammad is the purusha of Islam. These religions cannot exist without their founders. Christianity and Islam are therefore paurusheya. Hinduism has no such purusha on whose authority it exists.
Hinduism is apaurusheya in a deeper sense also, which brings it close to science, and brings its spiritual quest close to the scientific method. In paurusheya religions, the word of the purusha (the founder) — be it Jesus or Muhammad — must be accepted without question. This gives rise to an enforcing authority known as the clergy to ensure that no one deviates from the ‘true path’ as shown by the founder, but in reality as enforced by the human representative who claims to be the true spokesman of the purusha. This naturally leads to men exercising political power in the name of God. This is what we call theocracy. The authority is the scripture, which is said to represent the word of God as conveyed through his medium or the purusha. As I shall soon explain, in this scheme, the medium invariably becomes more important than God. For example, it is Jesus not his God that defines Christianity.
Hinduism on the other hand leaves the individual free from any religious authority. If any work is considered great, it is because of the message and not the messenger. Similarly, a teacher is considered great because of the greatness of the teaching. For example, Vishwamitra is considered a great sage because of the greatness of the Gayatri Mantra, which he enunciated. If someone else than Vishwamitra had given us the Gayatri Mantra, it would still be considered great because of its message. It is the same with Krishna and the Gita. It is the message of the Gita that has led to people reveringKrishna as a great teacher. Also, a Hindu is free to question or reject any part or all of a religious work.
It is different with revealed religions like Christianity and Islam: Jesus and Muhammad are invoked as authority to justify teachings that sometimes cannot be justified on their own merit. No such authority exists in Hinduism: the teaching must stand or fall on its own merit. This is what makes it apaurusheya. Cosmic truths existed before the arrival of Vishwamitra andKrishna. These sages, who first expressed them, were historical persons but the truth of their message is eternal and always existed.
This feature— of focusing on the message and its truth rather than the authority of the messenger brings Sanatana Dharma close to science and the scientific method. In science also, a principle or a theory must stand or fall on its own merit and not on the authority of anyone. If Newton and Einstein are considered great scientists, it is because of the validity of their scientific theories. In that sense, science is also apaurusheya. Gravitation and Relativity are eternal laws of nature that existed long before Newton and Einstein. These are cosmic laws that happened to be discovered by scientific sages Newton and Einstein. Their greatness lies in the fact that they discovered and revealed great scientific truths. But no one invokes Newton or Einstein as authority to ‘prove’ the truth of laws of nature. They stand on their own merit. The same is true of the Gita and the Gayatri Mantra.
Hinduism recognizes the freedom of the individual. It recognizes no prophet’s claim as the possessor of the ‘only’ truth or the ‘only’ way.
This is probably the greatest difference between Sanatana Dharma and revealed religions like Christianity and Islam. I can illustrate this with the help of a recent proclamation by the Vatican. In a just released document titled “Declaration of Lord Jesus” the Vatican proclaims non-Christians to be in a “gravely deficient situation” and that even non-Catholic churches have “defects” because they do not acknowledge the primacy of the Pope. This of course means that the Vatican refuses to acknowledge the spiritual right of others (including Hindus) to their beliefs and practices. This consigns non-Christians to hell, and the only way they can save themselves is by becoming Catholics, by submitting to the Pope.
It is worth noting that this statement has nothing to do with God, or even noble conduct. A Hindu who lives a life of virtue is still consigned to hell because he refuses to acknowledge Jesus as the only savior and the Pope as his representative on earth. The same is true of Islam: one must submit to Prophet Muhammad as the last, in effect the only prophet, to be saved. Belief in God means nothing without belief in Christ as the savior or Muhammad as the Last Prophet.
One who believes in God but does not accept Jesus or Muhammad as intermediary is still considered a non-believer and therefore a sinner. They simply do not tolerate pluralism. This is what makes both Christianity and Islam exclusive. The rejection of this formulation is also what makes Hinduism pluralistic and tolerant.
From this it is clear that what governs a revealed religion is not God but the founder who claims to be God’s intermediary. (The clergy acting in the founder’s name becomes the enforcing authority or the thought police.) A believer is one who accepts the intermediary as the savior. God is irrelevant. He is even dispensable but not the intermediary. Hinduism recognizes no intermediary as the exclusive messenger of God. In fact the Rigveda itself says: ‘ekam sat, vipra bahuda vadanti,’ meaning “cosmic truth is one, but the wise express it in many ways.” The contrast between exclusivism and pluralism becomes clear when we compare the following statements byKrishna and Jesus Christ.
Krishna of the Bhagavadgita says: “All creatures great and small— I am equal to all. I hate none nor have I any favorites… He that worships other gods with devotion, worships me.”
This means that Krishna has no favorites and accepts all forms of worship— even worship of other deities. But revealed religions like Christianity and Islam could not exist without favorites or intermediaries like the Prophet or the Son of God. The Bible says that God is jealous. Reflecting the ‘jealous God’ of the Bible, the chosen intermediary is also jealous. This is reflected in both the Bible and the Koran. “He that is not with me is against me,” says Jesus of the Bible (Matthew 12.30) . So a devotee cannot know God, but can only go through the intermediary who jealously guards his exclusive access to God.
Hinduism is the exact opposite of this. Anyone can know God and no jealous intermediary blocks his way. And the Hindu tradition has methods like yoga and meditation to facilitate one to reach God. Further, this spiritual freedom extends even to atheism. One can be an agnostic oven an atheist and still claim to be a Hindu.
In addition, there is nothing to stop a Hindu from revering Jesus as the Son of God or Muhammad as a Prophet. In contrast, a Christian or a Muslim revering Rama or Krishna as an avatar would be rejected as a heretic. This is also what makes Christianity and Islam exclusive, and Hinduism pluralistic and inclusive.
From this it is also clear why revealed religions always claim to be monotheistic: One God allows only One Intermediary. So every monotheistic religion also tends to be monopolistic. It also requires a thought police to enforce this belief system, just as every earthly dictator does. So they invariably become theocratic political systems. In contrast, in Hinduism, God is internal to the seeker. As a result each seeker has his or his own version of God. Different traditions like Dvaita, Advaita and others represent different pathways. They exercise no authority and there is no clergy to enforce.
Hinduism and spiritual freedom
So the single most important theme of Hinduism is the freedom of the spirit. Just as science insists on freedom in exploring the physical world, Sanatana Dharma embodies freedom in the exploration of the spiritual realm. There are no dogmas or prophets — or their agents — to block the way. This allows Hinduism, like science, to grow and evolve with time. Dogmatic religions on the other hand are frozen in time. (In fact, a good deal of the effort by the priesthood in Islam and Christianity is to ensure that the original teachings do not become corrupted due to change.)
This freedom of spirit is most concisely expressed in the famous Gayatri Mantra, which prays: dhiyo yo nah pracodayat— which means, “Inspire our intellect.” So the greatest prayer in Hinduism is for clarity of thinking. It does not ask anyone to accept anything on blind faith in a prophet or any other agent of God. Teachers in Hinduism are only guides who suggest pathways. They have no authority. The seeker has to find his or her own way, with the help of guides if needed.
In the light of this, ‘conversion’ to Hinduism entails accepting a way of looking at the world and not simply changing faith and adopting a new mode of worship. Above all it means acknowledging spiritual freedom and rejecting exclusivism. It is like accepting the scientific method, which also is a way of looking at the world. It cannot be done by force or with promises of profit. Learning about Sanatana Dharma can be done in several ways. By studying various works like the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita, with the guidance of a teacher, or by studying the lives of sages and heroes in the epics and the Puranas. It may also be gained through personal experience by meditation and yoga. But ultimately, every Hindu must place truth and knowledge above faith. There is no dogma. This is why people who are initiated into Hinduism are made to recite the Gayatri Mantra, which is an assertion of this spirit of intellectual freedom.
As a result, it is a very great error to say that all religions say the same thing. They emphatically do not. When Krishna says, “Those who worship other gods with devotion worship me,” and Jesus says, “He that is not with me is against me,” they are not saying the same thing. A Hindu is one who holds on to this belief system and code founded on the right of everyone to spiritual freedom, while Christianity and Islam reject and even punish this freedom. The method of worship and the deity or deities one may choose to worship are secondary as long one acknowledges everyone’s right to this freedom and is prepared to defend it. So the only enemies of Sanatana Dharma are those that oppose spiritual freedom. Protecting and nurturing Sanatana Dharma and the society founded on it is the responsibility of Hindu nationalism. Spiritual freedom is a right that carries with the responsibility of defending it.
Dr. NS Rajaram is Contributing Editor of Folks Magazine.