Hinduism, a perspective
by Dr. Parviz Dehghani
What is ‘Hinduism’? Is this the name of the Religion of India? The answer is ‘No’. Do we really know it? The answer is again ‘No’. But does it matter? Not really. What is important here is the fact that it provides us with answers to our most fundamental philosophical questions. Whether or not one agrees with these answers is not an issue here. There is no doubt that logic plays a great role in our inquiry. However, experience that which finally counts. We may read about a very famous perfume but until we smell it, we will not know how good it is. Religions are also to be experienced after they are rationally examined. Thus, their intellectual understandings can only take us so far. Hinduism is no exception here. Religions on the outside are exoteric. In other words, they are in the realm of many, differentiation, and multiplicity. They answer questions raised by the mass or the public. Those responses to people are different from one Religion to another which occasionally become the causes of great conflicts and even violence among them.
Religions on the inside are esoteric. In other words, they are united in the realm of Oneness. This is where the experience of smelling the perfume comes in. By way of an analogy, a Religion’s outer part (exoteric) reminds us of a piece of bone which is made of hard tissues. The inner part of this bone which is called marrow is (esoteric) made of soft tissues. One is reminded of the Great American writer Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) who went to Walden pond, in north east of Massachusetts and while spending time in a cottage he wrote that he had gone there to experience the marrow of life. It is very interesting to know that he carried with him a copy of Bhagavad-Gita (Song of the Blessed One), which is a part of the Mahabharata, a Hindu epic, which is the longest in the history of mankind. Perhaps he was trying to reach what is called, “Sapiential knowledge”. This is a knowledge that is gained by tasting, which means experiencing the taste of the bone marrow, absorbing the reality but not rationally though the initial intellectual endeavor is a necessity. You may say we have our hands on no facts what so ever. I could not agree with you more. Because this is exactly what we’re trying to convey. We can come up with the clearest logical analysis in order to probe and understand the claims expressed in Hinduism. However, we’re still going to be thirsty and not satisfied. The reason being, we need to become one with the Ultimate Reality leaving the abode of the world of becoming and change in which everything is relative and move up towards Oneness that does not accept any duality. That is why in this Religion, namely, Hinduism, we’re directed to participate in a form of meditation called Raja Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga which was put together by Patanjali. Buddha is said to have made use of this yoga to reach Enlightenment.
Hinduism teaches us that our goal in this life should be to focus on the Ultimate Reality which is Brahman. What is Brahman? Unfortunately, we cannot define this term. Once we try to do so, we’ll limit its reality in our mind. How about if we name it like we have? We cannot do that either for the same reason. Can we think about it? The answer is obviously no for the same reason again. Can we use the verb ‘ to be’ or ‘ to exist’ for this Reality? The answer is no. Because its first manifestation is ‘being’. Besides, it would put it logically, if not metaphysically, on the same level as everything else that exists. What if it were necessary existence? In other words, it cannot not exist, therefore, it must exist while our existence is only contingent which means it is possible. I could be here or I could not be here. My existence is accidental, that is, it depends on the necessary existence. But it seems in Hinduism, the Ultimate Reality is even beyond being and non-being, rest and motion and beyond any duality. Can we say that it is nothing? The answer is no. Why not? It is simply because it creates a duality. What is the opposite of nothing? The answer is something. Silence seems to be the only answer we have here. However, what is silence when there is no noise but we cannot divide silence, nor can we separate it from its opposite. As you can see, we’re locked up in a logical maze. Our impure mind cannot help us. Perhaps this is the reason why the belief in reincarnation makes sense in Hinduism. We have been trying very hard to see if we can know the truth rationally. But with our reason alone we’re left with nothing.
By being ethical and moral, we have come to a dead end. On the other hand, I ‘m not going to be around that long. Life is too short. Perhaps in our next life, not necessarily after we die, we’ll know the truth. Because dying does not guarantee that the reality will reveal itself to us. Unless we’re qualified, we’ll not be able to have a taste of the Reality standing beyond the phenomenal world. What is Atman? It is extended Reality which is connected to Brahman. Atman is our true Self. It is in the realm of many. Because it exists in everything else. By way of analogy, it is like the ray of the sun. Brahman here is like the sun itself. When the sun or the moon shine on the sea, their reflections are many rays all over. In other words, to realize that we’re one with the Ultimate reality or Brahman, we should seek the key to the mystery of being within ourselves. Our life is passing before our eyes and time is not waiting for anyone. We’re getting older and death is right around the corner. Old and young are falling like autumn leaves. Carpe diem (seize the day) is also the message of Hinduism here. The cyclical idea of history of this religion tell us to live for the moment and not to worry so much about the past and the future. It teaches us that presence is all we have. We need to wake up from this Maya or illusion or dream. When we wake up, then our questions regarding where we have come from, what is this life, and where we are going we’ll be answered. The mystery of life will not be resolved intellectually unless by the intellect we mean the light of the sun within which is nothing but Atman. Intellect in this sense is not Kant’s pure reason. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the German philosopher of the 18th century argued that pure reason is limited. The question is: “How does he know that pure reason is limited, unless he is aware of the unlimited Intellect?” Besides is not his reason also limited? If this is the case, then how can he claim he is giving us the true assessment concerning the reality of reason? When we make such a statement that ” pure reason is limited”, then is it possible that this very statement itself is also limited? If the answer is yes, then we come to a conclusion that we logically cannot by pass the reality of the unlimited Reason which is the Intellect. After all, according to Kant, reason by its very nature tends to divide. Thus, we cannot have a reason that is limited without the one that is unlimited. Kant, I believe, falls into what is called, “self referentially incoherency”. However, we’re not here to show whether or not Kant’s position is contradictory. What matters most of all is that Hinduism is trying to show us different avenues so we can discover our true Self. Once we’re there and liberated, can we claim to teach about the limitation of our ordinary self to know God, our true Self, and the Reality hidden behind the phenomenal world. In Bhagavad-Gita there are three ways to reach the Ultimate Reality: yoga of knowledge, yoga of love, and yoga of action. Raja yoga can also be added here though it is not mentioned in the Gita. Once consolidated, we’ll be left with Karma yoga which is the same as yoga of action and Raja yoga. The former deals with the highest form of Dharma or moral duty. And the latter gives us the greatest form of meditation by which we can reach Moksha (liberation), in Buddhism Enlightenment.
Karma means action and its consequences. It is based on cause and effect. It is a consequentialist moral action. It is a conditional action. It is conditional which requires (if, then) type of statements. This kind of actions depend heavily on results. An individual with perfect Karma, in Hinduism, can become a deity, a god or goddess after he or she dies and leaves this world. In our ordinary life, however, we rely on the past experiences through which we can make predictions about the future events which may or not take place. David Hume (1711-76), the Scottish philosopher and historian of the 18th century argued that we can never predict the future based on the past and the present. Perhaps Hitler took Hume’s advice too seriously and instead of learning a lesson from what had happened to Napoleon’s defeat in Russia, he invaded this country and lost the war, maybe he wished he had learned from history before he made his decision. Hume had his own notion of causality. He argued that we can never have a direct and immediate (without medium) perception of what happens between cause and effect. Marx by passed Hume’s ideas on causality and predicted that the first communist revolution would take place in England. But he did not live to see that mother Russia would deliver the baby in the beginning of the 20th century. It seems that Hitler proved Hume wrong on the one hand and Marx, who had trusted causality by passing Hume, proved him right on the others. But what is the point here? Well, what we like to show is the fact that the idea of Karma in Hinduism is very different from what is understood by causality in our everyday life. Karma is very much like a prophetic prediction which is called prophesy. These kind of predictions are bound to happen in the future. I would call them vertical predictions. The same is true with the belief in Karma. Our actions whether in the past or our past in this life we’ll have their effects on our lives regardless. This is different from our horizontal causality which could be the subject of disputes among the philosophers. Karma in Hinduism is a reality which is woven into the fabric of the spiritual and Divine Universe. In other words, in the final analysis we’ll receive the effects of our good or bad actions in this world or next. Even in the Abrahamic Religions though God forgives our sins, it does not mean He will not punish us for our wrong doings.
Karma yoga, however, is a non- consequentialist project. By that we mean, results or consequences do not play a role in this form of action. This yoga is a non- conditional which means there are no ” if and then” words present in our statements. This Karma is the highest form of selfless act. Krishna, who is the Avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, tells Arjuna in Bhagavad-Gita that when you give, give without expectation. Give even though there is nothing in it for you. When you have reached such a level in Hinduism, you’ll come to know that your true Self (Atman) and The Ultimate Reality (Brahman) are one. Once there is such a recognition, then there is Muksha (Liberation). This is where our ordinary self somehow disappears. Krishna teaches Arjuna that by selfless act you’ll become one with the Ultimate Reality. However, this oneness is not like 2+2=4. This is very much like 2+0=2 which means that before the Ultimate Reality we’re nothing. But even this nothing can still love God. I ought to learn through Karma yoga to act selflessly. Having done that, I’ll come to know that at the end I’m nothing before Brahman and my true Self is nothing but Atman and Atman and Brahman are one.
Kant, having no knowledge of Hinduism, came up with a moral theory which is very close to the one in this Religion which he called it “categorical imperative”. This theory stands for what is right unconditionally. When you act just do so for duty’s sake alone. Do without any expectation. Hypothetical imperative, on the other hand, is a conditional moral theory with which Kant completely disagrees. The ideal form of action is only an imperative which is categorical. However, in his ethical system God is only a postulate or assumption. Whereas in Hinduism Krishna is the incarnated manifestation of the god Vishnu who is one of the masks of the Ultimate Reality or Brahman. When Kant was busy to show us the limitation of pure reason, the Hindu thinkers were showing us the great reservoir of the unlimited, eternal, and infinite Reality within us called our true Self or Atman. In Bhagavad-Gita Krishna directs Arjuna to give without expecting anything in return. This is a divine command. Kant’s imperative is also a command but who is giving it? In Hinduism we’re encouraged to sit in meditation after following certain moral precepts by passing our ordinary self in order to reach our true Self. Perhaps the only thinker who noticed the differences between the two was German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) whose mind was on fire after he studied Hinduism and Buddhism. For the Hindu philosophers once we ascend to the highest level of meditation, we’ll know our true Self, then the knowledge of the Ultimate reality is next. When we attain such a knowledge, then the Reality beyond the phenomenal world will reveal itself to us. This is exactly what is missing in Kant’s philosophy. About 2600 ago Buddha put to test this Hindu idea and became enlightened. “Western philosophy links up with Easter philosophy”. “Schopenhauer believed he had corrected and completed the work of Kant…” (The story of philosophy, by Bryan Magee, page 138).
On the existential and everyday life, however, we still have unanswered questions. While I’m typing these humble sentences people are dying and leaving us with this world. We’re still not convinced about the answers we’re given concerning death.
Death still remains a mystery as does life itself. We’re still struggling to know what life itself is. We’re still trying to find out about the nature of time. Why did the Hindu sages think that time is cyclical? Remember a circle represent eternity. But in Hinduism linear concept of time and history has no meaning. When Euclid, who was Plato’s student, said that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, he did not hesitate to remind us that it was only a postulate or an assumption. Even though in Hinduism we do not keep chronicles, History in general and also the history of our lives in particular, is of great significant.”Do not squander time, Ben Franklin (1706-90) once said, this is the stuff our life is made of.” No matter how futuristic we’re, we still reminisce and we become nostalgic remembering the past events. How can we possibly deny the fact that we tend to cherish our memories no matter what? Of course, we rather bypass our bad memories. However, as we leave our childhood and its simplicity behind, we realize that life becomes more complicated and its difficulties make us remember the trouble free time of the past. We need to be present in the here and now.
We’re told by Hinduism we should only focus on the moment. Because this is the only reality that matters the most. Past is past and it will never come back again. Future is totally unknown to us. Therefore, the present is the only solid fact that is with us. However, we’re swinging horizontally between the past and the present like a pendulum. We’re in time and space. Being subject to change and becoming, we’re in the river of time floating downstream towards the fall, some faster than others. Others are born to eventually have the same destiny. What is the purpose of this coming and going? No one really knows. We ought to accept what Religions teach us by faith including Hinduism. How many of those who have passed on have come back to tell us about after life? Even Lazarus, who was raised by Jesus from the dead, did not tell us anything about after life. Christ himself did not say anything either. It seems our questions remain unanswered. In Hinduism, we’re directed yet again to ourselves. We’ll not have the answers to our questions until we introspect and look within through in order to achieve our goal which is Moksha or liberation. This is real freedom. Freedom from all of our attachments to the world. We can never have the ultimate happiness unless we’re completely free from all of our desires. But is this within the realm of our capability? Once we lose weight, can we keep it up? When we abstain from certain worldly pleasure for a long time with the hope of some salvation and soon realizing that this starvation did not get us any closer to liberation, we’re likely to return to them with disappointment. In fact, this abstinence would make us hungrier for those desires.
When you find yourself alone in the world confronting the wrongs which are waiting to become right, when health is decaying and death is a sudden possibility, when you miss the loved ones who left us for an unknown place, always remember you’re still breathing and life goes on. When your older siblings leave you one by one, perhaps to join your parents, you have to cope with a vacuum presented to you. This emptiness left behind seems to be occurring with change. Death is happening as we move forward. It is about a series of beings and non-beings. We’re here now and once we move, we’re there, not where we were before. This is about life and death. We live in this world of opposites and contradictions. Opposites are not contradictory. But contradictions are opposites. Sweet and sour are not contradictory but only opposites. To survive in this life, we should dance in the rain and move on. In this chaos we need to keep our sanity by having our philosophical attitude intact and contemplate about the world around us. We also need to sit in meditation.
Socrates once said that we ought to examine our life on a regular basis. In other words, we should always ask ourselves as to who we really are. What is life anyway? Where was I before I stepped into this world? Does life have a meaning at all? Is it possible that life is just absurd? Otherwise, what is the purpose of being? Are we all, with rest of the universe, just created because otherwise the Ultimate Reality would, not be perfect? Why are we going through this roller coaster? Why do we have to be on this merry-go-round of Samsara, this ever reoccurring series of births, deaths, and rebirths? What if there is no after life? What if this is a dream? What if we’re all in a butterfly’s dream, as an ancient Chinese sage once said? After all it is in Hinduism itself that this world is an illusion or Maya. Well, according to Kant himself, reason asks questions that cannot answer. Perhaps there are no answers, not even after we die. By the way, while I’m typing these sentences time keeps on passing and the world is changing all around us. The force of nature drives us to leave this world to an unknown destiny. Where am I going? What if there is only an abyss of nothingness? French philosopher and Mathematician (1623-62) Blaise Pascal believed we are much better off if we had faith in the afterlife than if we did not. Because if we do and there is nothing there, we have not lost anything. But if we do not, and there is, then we have lost a great deal. Well, what if I was a religious person all my life and as a result of which I deprived myself of many worldly pleasures and once I die, I find out that I had wasted so much basically for nothing? Perhaps Pascal knew that there was a risk involved in his wager after all life is a gamble. In Hinduism this problem seems to be somewhat absent. Hinduism would urge us to experiment the process of reaching the world beyond here and now. We’re encouraged to experience rather than just have faith. We’re persuaded to smell the perfume by ourselves. We’re suggested to practice our faith in this world while we ‘re alive. The opportunity is here and now for us to catch the moment and try to ascend and transcend our ordinary selves in order to free ourselves from the bondage of this world to achieve Muksha or liberation. This is Hinduism in a nutshell.