Aim of Hinduism
Hinduism is essentially a practical religion, according to which one get the result of leading a spiritual life here and now. This is in contrast with other religions according to which one must die before one can reap the fruits of his action.
The fundamental principle of Hinduism is to make a person spiritual by prescribing what is suitable for him. For this, it offers four goals of life:
a. Dharma, Righteous living in accordance with religion, which results in a better rebirth.
b. Artha, Acquisition of wealth through rightful means
c. Kama, Enjoyment without transgressing the social and religious norms, and
d. Moksha, Liberation from everything that is by nature worldly.
The first three are for the common people, and the fourth one is for the sannyasi and tyagi. However, it is expected that every Hindu would give up the world to devote himself fully to spirituality and attainment of moksha at some stage of his life.
The supreme Reality is Sat-Chit-Ananda (Pure Existece, Consciousness and Bliss), which carries two ideas of Itself -- the impersonal, and the personal.
The Impersonal God is ever present and everywhere present God for whom no adjective can be employed. He is infinite, ever free, without a form, and beyond the grasp of the human mind. This aspect of God is also known as nirguna nirakara Brahman (without any qualifying traits and form). He cannot be called a knowing being, because knowledge belongs to the human mind; He cannot be called a reasoning being, because reasoning is a sign of weakness; He cannot be called a creating being, because none creates except in bondage. It is in this form of the Supreme Reality that the Atman is identical with it.
But for a common man it is impossible to think of the Supreme Reality without attributes. So, the ancient sages presented before the public the concept of Saguna Sakara (God with form and qualities), who is merciful, powerful, and with innumerable noble qualities. He is the omnipresent creator, preserver, and destroyer of everything. For the follower of this class of devotees, mukti consists in coming near to Him and living in Him after death.
It is the Personal aspect of God that is worshipped as the Divine by the Hindus. Of these, Brahma is accepted as the Creator, Vishnu as the sustainer, and Shiva as the destroyer of the universe. Vishnu is also known as Narayana, and is believed to have incarnated as Rama and Krishna in later ages. Of the entire pantheon of Gods, four forms of God: Vishnu, Shiva, Rama, and Krishna are more popular.
The creative principle of God is maintained by Shakti, the power of God. This Shakti is worshipped by the Hindus variously as Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and others. Independent of these, Saraswati is universally worshipped as the goddess of learning.
In addition to these, there are millions of gods and goddesses who represent the various aspects of divinity. According to some, there are in total thirty three crore (three hundred and thirty million) of them, which allows a Hindu to choose a God of his personal liking.
Why and how does God create this universe? This is a problem that has baffled the philosophers since ancient times. For Hindus also, Creation is a mystery of God that cannot be satisfactorily explained. Different philosophers offer different theories, but the most popular of them is the theory of Maya, according to which, God creates the Universe (seen and unseen) with the help of His own inscrutable Maya (the great veiling power), which by its very nature is something that cannot be described.
Maya is the Divine Ignorance which has an existence only till one does not realise the Spiritual Truth. Thus, Maya exists and yet It does not exist. It is Maya which is responsible for the wrong perception that people have regarding the presence or absence of a thing. Also, the continuance of the universe is due to Maya; and time, space, events, name and form are all products of Maya.
Maya can be compared with the darkness of night that makes objects invisible. When one wants to see this darkness with the help of the existing darkness, it cannot be seen; and when one wants to see it with the help of light, it vanishes. Just like that, maya cannot be seen through maya, and it ceases to exist when the divine light of God realisation dawns upon a person.
The existence of maya as real, unreal, or part real is accepted by every Hindu philosophers. They, however, differ about its exact nature.
Hindus firmly believe that life is eternal, and that it did not spring out of nothing at some point of time in near or distant past, as science and many religions will have us believe.
The most popular and accepted theory of creation is that Creation comes into existence by the will of God through Maya, and what we call Creation, is in reality projection. Nature (called variously as maya, Prakriti, and Shakti) is without beginning and without end. At some point of time this gross universe goes back to its finer state, remains there for a certain period, and then once again gets projected to manifest all that is there in the nature. This cyclic creation-dissolution has continued since eternity, and would continue eternally.
Two theories are advanced to explain the process of Creation to the common man. According to one, the will of God creates Brahma, who gets down to the job of creation by meditating on the principles and process of Creation that was there in the previous cycle. With time, the creation blooms in all its majesty.
The second popular theory with the philosophers is that there is Prakriti, the Universal Mother Nature, which is composed of inertness (tamas), activity (rajas), and purity (sattva) in balance. For a divine mysterious reason, whenever an imbalance takes place in the triad of these qualities, they start combining with each to give birth to more and more gross objects till the subtle aspects of earth, fire, water, space, and air are produced. These five are not the physical objects that we see around us, but much more fine, and are at the root of everything that is there in the universe. The final creation of the objects of this universe proceeds from the combination of these five elements in a set order, and every object of the universe, including the mind, contains these five elements in varying proportion.
God of the Hindus is beyond Creation and causation. But it is accepted by the Hindus that God expresses Himself in various forms, including human beings. The more accepted theory is that He becomes a human being to give a push to spiritual evolution. Although God is Mayadheesh (Lord of Maya), He chooses to become Mayadheen (under the control of maya). It is only then that a common man gets a feel of the warmth of the Lord's love, compassion, majesty etc.
This concept of avatara -- God incarnating as man, is unique to Hinduism.
Vedanta, the founding philosophy of the Hindus, is developed on the texts of Upanishads, Gita, and Brahmasutras, according to which, Brahman alone exists -- Sarvam khalvidam Brahma.
At the micro level, Brahman is known as Atman, the conscious principle present in every living being. By its very nature Atman can neither be created, nor destroyed. It has all powers, purity, omnipresence, and is full of all knowledge. But due to maya (inexplicable reason), the pure Atman mistakenly identifies itself with body, mind and senses. It is then that it becomes transmigratory, and is known as jivatman, which is equivalent to the soul of the Semitic religions. Thus there is a fundamental difference between Hinduism and other religions regarding the idea of the soul.
The jivatman identifies itself with various kinds of action and their results. It enjoys certain things, and abhors many other things, which makes it work more and more. It thus goes on creating karma -- good and bad. These karma cloud the pure nature of Atman, and makes him forgetful of itself. Instead, it enjoys and suffers in the world. However, since the atman is infinite and eternal, it passes and evolves through various bodies and finally attains perfection and freedom, which is its true nature.
According to Advaita Vedantins, Atman is identical with the Supreme Reality, Brahman; and the multiplicity that is seen everywhere is not real, but is imaginary due to Maya. For many other sages, Atman is related to God in the same way as a leaf is connected with a tree. This view is called Visishta Advaita, which was popularised by Ramanujacharya. According to some others, Atman and God are two eternally separate beings and they have the relationship as between a servant and his master. This is called Dvaita, popularised by Madhvacharay. In both these systems, Brahman is equated only with God, and not with the Atman.
Hinduism accepts that the true individuality of a person does not lie with his body or the mind, but in the Atman; and the real consciousness does not belong to the mind, but to the Atman. It is the reflected consciousness of the Atman in the mind (which serves like a mirror) that makes one perceive and know the objects of the world. When one's mind is cleansed through sadhana, it serves as a perfect reflector of the spiritual reality.
The most profound doctrine of the Hindus is the Law of Karma, according to which 'one gets what one earns.' The law has been universally accepted by Indic religions like Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and is now making inroads in Western thinking too.
According to the law of karma, what one thinks is as important as what one does in shaping one's future. This means that the disparity in the world amongst people is not an act of God, but is due to one's own doing. This also means that one has the freedom to change one's situation by performing right action, and thinking right thoughts. This implies that the great questions like predestination and fate have no place in Hinduism. The grace of God, like the widespread rains, is everywhere, and one only has to make use of it through one's actions and thoughts to reap the benefit.
There is no historical point when the karma of an individual became operative; it is as beginningless as maya and the soul. Like a flowing river, one may not know its source of origin, but one can go across it through proper means.
The goal of Hinduism is to go beyond the sway of Karma, which ultimately results in the vicious cycle of birth and death.
The most important fall out of the Law of Karma is the continuation of life in some form to work out one's karma. At the time of death, the individual Atman (jiva) leaves the body, along with the mind to take up a new bod. Depending on one's actions and attitude, one may be born in any of the visible or invisible forms, but the best way to work out one's karma is through a human body. For example, an extremely vicious person may be reborn as a tiger or a lion, but only a limited amount of karma would be worked out there. Similarly, if a person is reborn in the heaven, he may enjoy life for a while, but his stock of karma will continue nearly undiminished.
According to Gita, only an illumined person can see the process of rebirth clearly.
Heaven and Hell
Unlike the heaven and hell of other religions, Hinduism believes these places to be temporary places of residence of the soul (which takes up a body suitable for the place to enjoy or suffer) where it lands in its journey towards mukti -- the final liberation from the law of karma.
Since no one knows how these places look, the poets of the Puranas gave a free flight to their imagination to construct various heavens and hells. However, Vedanta does not pay attention to these trivialities of after life.
The goal of every soul is freedom and liberation from every kind of bondage. The ignorance, inherent in every mind about one's true nature (the eternally pure, conscious, and free atman), gives birth to identification with the non-eternal. This gives rise to desires to acquire the pleasurable, and run away from the unpleasant. This results in an individual's compulsion to act and work, which in turn causes more ignorance, more desires and more bondage. The cycle goes on.
The aim of Hinduism is to make a person conscious of this vicious cycle of ignorance-desire-action, which ultimately binds one to the law of karma and makes him suffer and enjoy variously. So, the spiritual practices in Hinduism are aimed at taking one beyond selfish action, and in making him absolutely detached. It is only then that one is ready for self realisation, which leads to the state of mukti.
The most important achievement of Hinduism has been the idea that a person, even while living, can go beyond the snares of bondage, born of desire, delusion and identification. In that state one realises oneself to be one with Existence. He then realises that he is Brahman, Aham Brahma Asmi.
The concept of Jivanmukti is the highest concept that has been conceived in any religion, and is unique to the Hindus. The concept implies that one can achieve the highest on this earth itself.
Hindu ethics is mostly elaborated in Smriti class of literature and deal with every possible issues that a a person may come across in his. These code of conduct are not based on what one sage said or did, but on the realistic ground of the ultimate spiritual truth.
The Hindu ethics is governed by the idea that everything is the manifestation of God only. Thus, when one kills an animal or a plant because of his greed or carelessness, he injures his own Atman in some way. Similarly, when one cheats or murders someone, he cheats and destroys his own self in some way.
Sin has been a serious issue with every religion, and most religions thrive on the fears imposed on the public in the name of sin. But the concept of sin does not play any important role in Hinduism. According to Hinduism, sin is the transgression of certain code of conduct (which themselves are dynamic in nature), and hence not permanent in nature. Sin is more like a mistake which can be corrected.