Basic Information about Hindu Dharma for New Seekers

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1. What is the Hindu Religion?
Hindu Dharma is the world's oldest faith. It was followed by the ancient civilization of the Indus valley, Ganges valley, Deccan and Cauveri delta, as well as other parts of India all over the Indian peninsula and surrounding areas of Asia. There are over 900 million to one Billion Hindus living throughout the world, mainly in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia from ancient times, and also the Hindus settled all over the world now. Hindu Religion is as much a "way of life" as it is a religion and affects every aspect of life for Hindus from birth throughout their life. It has been referred to by different names like Dharma, Hinduism, Vaidheeha Dharma, Hindu Dharma, and also Sanatana Dharma. (Please see addendum below)

2. Hindu Scriptures and Principles

Hinduism, unlike most religions, has no founder and no one scripture. Hindus do not have one "Holy Book" like many other religions, but many texts including the four Vedas along with their Upanishads, called the "Sruti" and several Dharma Sasthras or Smrutis and Ithihasas and Puranas including the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The Bhagavad Gita, or "Song of God", comes as part of Mahabaratha, is an essence of the message of the Upanishads and Hindu Philosophy and is considered to be a guide on how we should live as told by Lord Krishna to Arjuna.

Hindus believe that as all streams and rivers lead to the same ocean, all genuine religious (spiritual) paths lead to the same goal, worship of every form of "GOD" and celestial forces leads to the same good. So we do not try to convert others to our religion. (Another example-path to top of the mountain may differ but the view from the top of the mountain will be the same.) Hindus believe in one God, beyond form, space and time and beyond human comprehension. He is referred to as "Paramatma" by most people, particularly the Smaarta sects, also called, as Para Brahman and as Truth. The Saivites call Him as Paramasiva or as Ishwara, and Vaishnavaites call Him as Maha Vishnu or as Narayana whereas Sakthi worshippers call Her as Aadi Paraasakthi, Parameshwari, Durga, Maha Kaali, Ishwari, and Amba.

3. One God Supreme in Many Forms.

Most Hindus, needing a form on which to concentrate, worship that one God in different forms, worshiping one aspect of that One Divine Supreme Truth. -- Hindus see God in the masculine as well as in feminine forms and as a family. Please understand that many of the sects of Hindus following the various forms of philosophy and worship and visualize this same Paramathma - Supreme God - as Narayana [Vishnu], or as Paramasiva [Siva] and Paraasakthi [Sakthi or Durga]. These are the major forms of Hindu "Gods" worshipped, which takes the form as created by the supreme God Paramathma for the benefit of the Human creations to easily comprehend Him as He is. So, this Immanent form of God is said to take the manifestations of various Deities through the veil of "Maya". We see that one God as Brahma - the creator, Vishnu - the maintainer, and Shiva - the destroyer and re-creator as Siva - or Nataraja. -

We see that one God also takes the female forms as Sakthi or Durga, - provider of energy and power, as Lakshmi, - provider of prosperity and wealth and as Saraswathi, - a provider of knowledge and intelligence. Here please note that unlike the other major world religions, we also see the Supreme as Mother, including as Sri Meenakshi, as Visalakshi, as Kamakshi and as many other names of Sakthi. He is also seen as Father as in various forms of Siva and Vishnu and their manifestations or Avathaaraas, in various forms in several Hindu Temples. -- The Temple is not just a congregation hall but a palace of the Supreme [the Queen or King].

Hindu Rituals and Worship
Hindu Rituals and Worship

4. Hindu Rituals and Worship

Hindu worship takes into account the capacities and inclinations of different individuals. --Types of worship include Ritualistic worship (temple or home), offering (directly or through the priest) flowers, coconut, fruits, incense, flames of oil lamps and camphor, chanting of prayers in Sanskrit (or mother tongue), etc. Also: Worship through service of one's fellow man (charity) and by one's activity; -- Worship through the studying of sacred texts and devotion to the Supreme; --Worship through meditation with physical and mental discipline and thorough understanding first the inner self then the divine that is everywhere. -- Worship and prayers are the duties of the human soul to attain Divine protection from the effects of bad karmas and to get guided in the proper path.

5. Hindu Religious Beliefs and Tenets

Hindus believe in ahimsa, or non-violence, which is the basis for the vegetarian diet of many Hindus. We believe non-injury includes thought, word, and deed. Hindus believe in Karma, the law of Cause and Effect. Similar to Western belief "As ye sow, so shall ye reap" or "What goes around, comes around." (No such thing as a free lunch.) -- Doing one's own duty without expectation of any rewards is key. It is one's own good and bad action that leads to enjoyment and suffering. Hindus believe in reincarnation, or "life afterlife." (Results may occur in a following life.) Every individual soul returns to earth several times by rebirth to perform proper Karma to purify itself. Once purified by good karma, the soul reaches liberation with no-rebirth. Attachment, greed, and lust lead to bad karma leading to grief and further suffering and rebirths to wash off those effects. A goal of Hindus is to achieve moksha, to be freed from the cycle of birth and death (when the "good" and the "bad" karmas balance.) or reach Swarga, the abode of the Divine Soul or Paramatma [God] to serve at His feet.

6. The Message of Our Teachings and Religious Experience

Philosophy is the rational aspect of the faith, in any culture or Religion. It is an integral part of Hindu religious beliefs and culture in India. It is a rational inquiry into the nature of truth or reality, giving clear solutions to many problems of life and human behavior. It shows the ways to get rid of the pain and suffering, to get happiness and peace of mind and to attain liberation and eternal bliss. Theology is considered important in most world religions. Philosophy is often agnostic and it is not part of the religious study. Hindus consider philosophy as an integral part of their religious experience. In Hindu culture, theology is well mixed in all aspects of life through its mythology, art, music, and dance and they all carry a moral. Hindu Philosophy is not merely speculation or guesswork of a solution for human problems and doubts, but an organized doctrine based on the mystical experience of the Sages and Seers.

7. Dharma - The Divine Laws that hold True forever

The teachings of Hindu philosophy are given to us in the Upanishads that are the wealth of our knowledge. The ethics and tenets are obtained from them through the Six Dharsanas and various later schools of philosophers. The glory of Hindu philosophy is seen in the teachings of Hindu dharma, the theory of karma and rebirth, the six dharnas, and the four yogas or spiritual disciplines. They not only create the questions in our mind to think but also give us the answers to the problems. Dharma means "that which holds" the people of this world and the whole creation. It is the eternal Divine law of God. That which brings wellbeing to man and supports the world with prosperity is dharma. It is the absolute Truth and laws of righteous living. The four Vedas are the authority of Dharma. The truth about dharma can not be realized through any other knowledge and one's own reasoning through any analysis alone can not be that authority.

8. Ancient sets of Rules that holds and changes with Time

Purushartha is the four kinds of human aspirations, which are dharma, artha, kaama, and moksha. Among these, dharma is the foremost and is the gateway to moksha or immortality and eternal bliss. The practice of proper Dharma gives an experience of peace, joy, strength, and tranquillity within ones-self and life becomes thoroughly disciplined. 
It is classified as 
[ i ] Samanya dharma or the general and Universal Dharma and 
[ ii ] Visesha dharma or specific personal dharma. Samanya dharma includes contentment, forgiveness, self-restraint, spiritual knowledge, absence of anger, non-greediness, non-stealing, truthfulness, purity, non-violence, control of senses and desire, discrimination between right and wrong and between real and unreal. Visesha or specific dharma includes duties due to one's birth, age and family and duties to society and family, due to one's career and job and spiritual life. They also include the specific dharmas for the four ashramas and four varnas. These are the regular duties including the rituals and services to the family, community, ancestors, and God that everyone is expected to perform. We have separate Dharma for each of the four Yugas or time periods.

9. Varying Rules of Duty for Different Times

The Vedas give different rules of Dharma for people of different age groups, different family traits and different periods of time. The ashrama dharma gives the standards of living for different age groups of individuals. The varna dharma is one that is most misinterpreted and misused. If properly interpreted and understood, it is the most efficient sociological system of the nation. It is indeed a splendid theory with a flawless rule. But, the defect came from somewhere else. Various dharma sasthras, or smrithis, written by Rishis like Manu, Parasara, and Yaagnavalkya, have varied for different periods of time according to varying social and emotional surroundings of the Hindu society [Yuga-Dharma]. The Hindus often follow the teachings of various Dharma sasthras for the philosophical guidance for daily living.

10. An un-encompassed light, Transcendent and Immanent

The greatest Philosopher of this century, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, past President of India, in one of his great works, explains the true nature of the Supreme God and the human spirit very well. "The Divine is both in us and out of us. God is neither completely transcendent nor completely immanent. He is divine darkness as well as 'un-encompassed light.' The philosophers with their passion for unity emphasize the immanent aspect, that there is no barrier dividing man from the real. Those who emphasize the Transcendence of the Supreme to the human insist on the specifically religious consciousness, of communion with a higher than ourselves with whom it is impossible for the individual to get assimilated." [This is seen both in Eastern and Western Faiths]

"There cannot be a fundamental contradiction between the philosophical idea of God as an all-embracing spirit and the devotional idea of a personal God who arouses in us the specifically religious emotion. The personal conception develops the aspect of spiritual experience in which it may be regarded as fulfilling human needs. God is represented as possessing the qualities we lack. Justice, love, and holiness are the highest qualities we know and we imagine God as possessing them, though these qualities exist in God in a different sense from their existence in us. The difference between the Supreme as spirit and Supreme as a person is one of standpoint and not of the essence, between God as He is and as he seems to us."

11. Introduction: The Spiritual Discipline Given in the Vedas.

The Philosophical teachings of Hinduism, like any scientific theory, are of no use to the common man unless it is applied for their daily practice. It has survived the test of time for many thousand years and still remains popular due to the sound principles on which its practice is based. It gives different rules of ethics and conducts for various categories of people. The Dharma Sastras and Smrithis teach us of normal conduct in performing our work. Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha are the four Purusharthas that govern out the activity.

12. The Teachings of the Vedas Applied for the Practice

Dharma is the proper rules of one's duty, which literally means "that which holds" the universe and its beings. They are classified as Samanya Dharma or the general and universal rules and Visesha Dharma or specific personal rules for each individual. They give peace, joy, strength, and tranquillity.

Artha and Kama are the materialistic desire and passions that also govern our actions. Unless one seeks the material benefits and pleasures within the scope of Dharma, it will cause grief with greed and lust. Moksha is the relief from pain and suffering and ultimate liberation that is the main reason for all our actions. The performance of one's duty without devotion to God is dry and empty. Performance of such duty should be without any attachment to its fruit but as a devotion to God. Hindu Dharma has given us the four Vedas, the three Agamas, the six Dharsanas, and the Four Yogas.

13. The Four Yogas as a Discipline to follow the Dharma

As rituals became popular and were being considered as the sole path for the eternal bliss, the soundness of its philosophy and ethics of practice were reestablished by the sages. The four Yogas give us the spiritual discipline of our conduct. Karma Yoga is the correct path of performing work without greed or desire and the action performed without looking for the fruits of benefit or loss. Raja Yoga is the discipline of control of our body and mind. It teaches concentration, meditation, breathing, and physical exercise and a state of equanimity of the mind as a natural reaction to all activities. Bhakthi Yoga is the spiritual discipline of absolute devotion and love of God. It teaches prayers and surrenders to God at all times. It teaches to see and feel God in all people and all actions. Jnana Yoga is the path of obtaining Spiritual knowledge through action, study, meditation, and devotion.

14. Development of the Gunas in Culture and Tradition

Vedas describe three personality traits, Sathvika, Rajasika, and Tamasika. Sathvika Gunas are present in the pious person who follows all teachings of the faith and Dharma. Compassion to all animals, Ahimsa and vegetarianism are advocated as Sathvika Guna. The Rajasika Gunas are present in people who enjoyed some amount of worldly pleasures directed by desire and ego, which are Artha and Kama. Tamasika persons have no knowledge of the proper Dharma or they do not care for them. They are driven solely by Artha and Kama which are passion, greed, and lust.

These Gunas are present in all but one is dominant. The Yogas advocate the ways to follow the superior Sathva Guna and the ways to suppress the undesirable Artha and Kama without the proper Dharma. Performance of proper Dharma and all the Karma leads to a sense of peace and equanimity of mind and eternal bliss. The individual makeup of a person, his Guna, and effects of his Karma determines the rebirth and ultimate liberation.
Vedic Sanskar Rituals
Vedic Sanskar Rituals

15. Bhakti Pathway and Vedic Sanskar Rituals

Various forms of Devotion and Sanskara in Practice
Hindu Religious Faith and practice are based on its strong philosophy and the ancient tradition. Most of the followers know about the Vedas and the Vedantha philosophy. Everyone understands that there is one God who is worshipped in many forms. Most of them are familiar with the Adhvaitha theory and Vedantha philosophy of the oneness of the Divine and the human soul. However, the practice is much closer to the Dhvaitha and Visishta-adhvaitha theories for the worship of the Divine.

The paths of Karma yoga, Raja yoga, Bhakthi yoga, and Gnana yoga are taught as the spiritual disciplines for the practice. Some feel that Gnana or the path of wisdom is the ultimate while others consider that after performing duties without attachment as in Karma yoga, practicing meditation and controlling thoughts as in Raja yoga and gaining knowledge of Gnana path one will reach the state of the ultimate surrender of Bhakthi Yoga.

Among all the paths of Hinduism, the most common and popular ones have been the Ritualistic [Sanskaara] paths and the Devotional [Bhakthi] paths of worship. The ritualistic path involves the practice of sanskaras which are performing the regular rituals for the formless Supreme Divine as prescribed in the Karma Kanda and Upasana Kanda portions of the Vedas. They are performed every day and for various events in one's life. These are practiced and performed mostly by persons knowledgeable in the Vedas and the Hindu philosophy and those initiated to the practice of these rituals.

The Bhakthi pathway is much easier to follow for everyone. It teaches a method of love and attachment towards a supreme God through one of His manifestations as in the Agamas and Puranas with devotional prayers and worships to various forms of Deities through poojas and bhajans. This form of Bhakthi develops into various levels and degrees as an inner attitude of an attachment and feeling of love towards God, from blind faith and devotion to God in one form to total surrender to the Supreme.

16. Bhakti or Devotion at various Levels

Bhakthi Yoga - the Devotional Practice

PARA-BHAKTI is the form of pure devotion with contemplation on the formless and Supreme un-manifest Brahmam. It is the highest form of bhakti suitable only for few learned people, the Jnana Yogis, who have the true Spiritual knowledge of the Supreme.

APARA-BHAKTHI or Gauni-bhakthi is the lower level of love and devotion to a manifested Iswara and prayers to one of His forms accepted as Ishta-Devatha or a personal God. There are many levels or grades in this, the most important being - Bhaya-bhakthi, Ananya-bhakthi, and Ekantha-bhakthi.
  • Bhaya-bhakthi is the very external form of worship of a Deity as God. It is the adoration paid to a form of God outside ourselves. It is the most basic form ofa faith, based on the unenlightened or Tamasika feeling that God is external to us and dwells in a particular locality like the prayer room or Temple. The pilgrimages, worship of several images of God, symbols and sacred books are examples of this. Most popular religions do not rise above this level.
  • Ananya-bhakthi [meaning "not another"] is the exclusive and passionate, or the Rajasika, form of worship of one's Ishta Devatha in the heart. It is an intense form of monotheism and gives a healthy direction to the spirit of devotion. But, it shall not give rise to bigotry and cruelty towards those who have different concept of God and different methods of approach. Among Hindus, it is well recognized that the gods whom others worship are only different forms of one's own Ishta-devatha.
  • Ekantha-bhakthi is the purest and Sattvika form of devotion. Here, the devotee loves God for His own sake and not for His gifts. He learns to crave for his personal God alone, in prosperity as well as in adversity. He sees the presence of God, as his Ishta-devatha, in all places, at all times.

17. Bhavas as an expression of Devotion and Love

Bhakthi Yoga - The feeling towards the Supreme
  1. Santha Bhava: [means calmness of mind]. The mind of the devotee is filled with divine knowledge and is emotionless, always undisturbed, peaceful and tranquil. Only Yogis and Jñanis, like Bhishma, who are highly developed and have had direct experience of God, will be able to practice Santha Bhava.
  2. Dasya Bhava: The devotee considers himself as inferior to God. He takes God to be his Master and looks upon himself as just a humble servant. He considers it is his duty to worship and to love God. Hanuman is an example of Dasya Bhakthi.
  3. Sakhya Bhava: The devotee considers God to be a dear friend, the sole supreme companion, and as his equal in relation, with pure friendship not degenerating into familiarity. Arjuna is an example of Sakhya Bhaktha.
  4. Vatsalya Bhava: The devotee considers God as his Child and themselves as the mother giving and also getting the unconditional love of the Child. Mother Yashoda had Vatsalya Bhakthi towards Child Krishna as her own child.
  5. Kantha Bhava: This is the expression of devotion with a feeling like the one a wife gets and gives towards her husband, as in the case of devotion of Sita or Rukmini towards Sri Rama and Sri Krishna, called Kantha Bhava.
  6. Madhurya Bhava: This is the highest expression of Divine love. Here, the devotee takes the lord to be his beloved, with deep love, devotion, and surrenders himself. When Gopikas like Radha develops Bhakthi towards Sri Krishna, it is the romantic love and surrender of the self to the lover, without any sensuality but with pure devotion and surrender, called Madhurya Bhava.

18. Fundamental Disciplines needed for Bhakthi Yoga

Categories of Bhakti Yoga - The Devotional Practice
  • 1. Abhyasa: Practice of constantly and continuously remembering God with a steady mind.
  • 2. Viveka: Discrimination, the ability to choose between right and wrong.
  • 3. Vimoka: Intense longing for God, rejecting everything that hinders our progress.
  • 4. Sathyam: Truthfulness, to be always observed as a basic rule of spiritual ethics.
  • We have to live a life of truth, think truth alone, speak the truth, and listen carefully to our own inner voice called conscience.
  • 5. Arjavam: This is straightforwardness or honesty.
  • 6. Kriya: Doing good deeds to all beings, as the devotee will God in all forms.
  • 7. Kalyana: This is wishing well of others with a loving heart, praying to the Lord for the well-being of others, for the peace and welfare of the world.
  • 8. Dhaya: Compassion, as God is love, mercy and compassion personified. As we seek to realize Him, we, too, must develop the same qualities.
  • 9. Ahimsa: The practice of non-violence, non-injury to all creatures, by way of action, thought or word.
  • 10. Dhaana: Abundant and spontaneous charity with a pure heart, for relieving the suffering of the distressed is a potent means of growing spiritually.
  • 11. Anavasada: To be cheerful and hopeful is an essential quality of a devotee. One must always have faith and hope.
By: Bala N. Aiyer, M.D.

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