Learning about Hinduism: Avoiding modern-day obstacles

Because of the social-political changes within India over the last century, today’s Hindus have more choices than before. This is particularly true for the Hindus of India, the country where Hindu thought has mainly flourished over the ages. These choices — freedom to think and act — were not present for Hindus between 1200 and 1947, when most Hindus were under brute foreign-colonial rule. Also, Hinduism has become a global religion, and Hindus of non-Indian origin also have the freedom and responsibility to contribute to Hindu thought. Accordingly, decisions that today’s Hindus make are important and will have their own importance in history.

Though Hinduism’s democratic flavor and its dynamic knowledge base are among the strengths of the religion, these strengths can become dangers if they are misused. They can become dangerous if followers start dumping everything that comes to their mind to the domain of Hindu thought. We must understand that in the past, over millenniums, Hindu scriptures were developed by God-inspired and God-realized human beings, whom we revere as saints and sages. Today, even non-believers and non-seekers have freedom to express their views loudly through their writings and talks. In this situation, we will have to learn to be selective in what we absorb. We can sometimes ignore the non-devotional individuals, no matter how intellectual they appear to be, who tend to pull Hindu thought in the wrong direction — away from its God-centricity.

What nurtured the caste system in ancient India?

I am sharing my answer to a Quora question. Casteism is a sensitive topic for many human beings. Please feel free to put your views in the comments section.

  • In ancient India, caste system became a social problem when members of the Indian society lost freedom in selecting their professions. Downward mobility was allowed; you could not move upwards. As an example, a priest or ruler could become an employee in a bookstore, but a bookstore employee could not become a ruler if he or she wanted to. The ancient hierarchy is as follows: Educators and Priests (Class I; Brahmin) → Rulers and Defence Professionals (Class II; Kshatriya) → Entrepreneurs (Class III; Vaishya) → Employees (Class IV; Shudra)
  • Casteism was not a problem created by the so-called higher caste individuals; it was more about people in political power misusing their power. However, in earlier times, unlike today, most people in power came from the higher castes (mainly Brahmins and Kshatriyas). Accordingly, Brahmins and Kshatriyas, in general, can’t be held responsible for casteism; only the individuals who misused power in ancient times can be partly blamed for it.
  • If we look at ancient World History, selected people in political power have misused power even in Europe. Misuse of power is always immoral, even when the phenomena involved is not labelled as casteism by historians.
  • Today’s India has been facing a faculty shortage for a while, maybe due to lesser perks. This indicates that people are not that interested in teaching — a job that Brahmins used to do in the past. People in ancient times were more interested in the privileges that came with it, say the permission to ride palanquins and elephants.
  • Casteism has been a social-political problem of the Indian subcontinent; it is not a problem of Hinduism, which is a global democratic religion. The saints of the Bhakti Movement, most of whom were from the so-called higher castes, ensured that casteism remains eliminated from true Hindu spirituality.
  • It appears that many ancient scholars may have even altered some of the scriptures to suit their needs. Many passages in Hindu scriptures are unnecessarily Brahmin-centric and appear out of context; they may be later additions. Because internal inconsistencies and interpolations may be present in scriptures of every world religion, we need to avoid the My scripture is perfect paradigm while reading scriptures and read them selectively.
  • We must understand that God does not discriminate on the basis of caste. At the same time, Brahmin-bashing is immoral.
  • We should remember that many of the devotional saints who handed over spiritual knowledge to society, like Sri Ramananda, Saints Tulasidasa, St. Thyagaraja, Sri Ramanujacharya, Sri Adi Shankarahcarya, St. Gyaneshwar and others were all born in Brahmin families. (Saints were considered beyond caste, but that is a different issue.) In North India, Sri Ramananda had the biggest role in opposing casteism. This shows that many people from the higher castes did think differently and supported goodness as opposed to casteism.
  • Many human beings from the so-called higher castes sacrificed their lives between 1200-1947 to free India from foreign rule. The period between 1200-1850 could have been politically and economically the worst for India, and foreign rule was unfortunate for everyone in India, irrespective of their castes.

Does Hinduism support free will?

Hinduism does not give a single answer that fits everyone; depending on whether the spiritual seeker believes in a non-dualistic or dualistic philosophy, the person’s stand on free will may be different.

.

From the non-dualist’s perspective

The Advaitin or non-dualist believes that events of the physical universe are like waves rising from an ocean, symbolizing God. This viewpoint supports no free will. All human actions, in reality, find their source in God. If an egoistic feeling of free will is present, it is due to illusion or due to the absence of God-realization. For the God-realized saint who has experienced the oneness of the self and God, the question eventually becomes redundant.

.

From the dualist’s perspective

Many believers of dualism support the existence of free will, even if they are not aware of this. It is even possible that free will was granted to human beings by God. The existence of free will does find some support in the early chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, depending upon which translation/interpretation is used. The scripture holds that karma of the past are responsible for our circumstances in the present moment. Supporting free will puts the blame of a human’s present circumstances (and of distress in the world) on the human being rather than on God. For most people, having some free will is a better answer for many purposes, even if it is not true. In spite of being an Advaitin, Sri Aurobindo (b. 1872), a famous Hindu philosopher, has stated, “The sense of free will, illusion or not, is a necessary machinery of the action of Nature, necessary for man during his progress, and it would be disastrous for him to lose it before he is ready for a higher truth [1].”

As for God-realized devotional saints (bhakti saints), their answer may not differ from that of the Advaitin. People in the refuge of God act in accordance with God’s wish, for they become God-inspired. Because most classical books on Hindu spirituality have been written by God-realized people, books generally discourage free will in Hinduism. The devotional, even if dualistic, generally discourage free will as they find it egoistical, in relation to God.

Reality may be perceived differently by a commoner in comparison to a saint; it is possible that reality is dynamic, and it changes for the spiritual seeker as he or she evolves spiritually. Even if free will is initially present and has been granted by God (while creating the universe), it may get renounced on our path towards God.

.

Free will and predeterminism

If a group of 50 people are requested to select between vanilla ice cream and chocolate ice cream, would God know the outcome beforehand? Would he know how many people would choose vanilla and how many would choose chocolate? Yes, he should; every choice will depend on one’s disposition, which, in turn, depends upon samskaras or karmic impressions. Choices made within the karmic field, if present, are in accordance with the laws of nature [2], defined by God. This does not mean that free will is not present; God can still figure out the future and stop an act if He wants to.

God may have hidden some answers from us while creating the universe; the existence of free will may be one of them. But devotional spirituality aims at recognizing the God-centricity of the universe, working in accordance with God’s wish, and aspiring to eventually reach God.

.

[1] Essays on the Gita by Sri Aurobindo

[2] According to Hindu philosophy, Nature binds all eternal souls to the material world through her three modes – goodness, passion, and darkness. Please check out this article for an introduction to these modes of nature.

Do Hindu scriptures say that Rama is the Supreme God?

I would like to share my answer to a Quora question. The answer tries to reject some of the misconceptions people have about Lord Rama. Though Rama has been established as the Supreme God in most Hindu scriptures, some individuals continue to propagate the false viewpoint that he is not divine.

If a human being does not want to believe that Lord Rama is Purna-Brahman — and all-knowing, — no literature support for this fact will be sufficient for him or her. On the other hand, if someone has developed faith, he or she will unambiguously recognize Rama’s divinity in all authentic versions of the Ramayana — including those written by Maharishi Valmiki, Maharishi Ved Vyas, and Goswami Tulasidasa — and in other devotional Hindu scriptures. So in the end, it is Rama (God) himself — the Real Doer — who decides if Rama will be perceived as the Divine by an individual soul (jiva) or as a mere human being or as an allegory. This is where faith and trust on Rama become important.

Unfortunately, today we do not have access to many scriptures in their original forms [1]; many scriptures appear to have later additions in them with internal logical inconsistencies or errors. Because we did not have a printing press in earlier times, it came down do hand-written manuscripts being transferred from generation to generation and memorization by later scholars. This is where unnecessary words may have been inserted, in spite of good intentions.

What can be a solution to deal with this situation? Rather than developing a My favourite scripture is perfect or My favourite scripture is better than your scripture kind of paradigm, we should learn to absorb what is useful in any scripture and skip what is not relevant for us. Moreover, equally importantly, we can also request Rama to directly guide us towards himself. In Hinduism, Rama’s being the Supreme God is not solely a scripture-dependent concept; it is more dependent on the personal experiences of devotional saints who have met him in person [2] and the experiences of commoners, some of which have also been documented in scriptures.

[1] Some relatively newer scriptures like the Bhagavad Gita may have had a higher chance of reaching us in their original state or with minimal modifications. In North India, the Ramacharitamanasa was more recently written and may have reached us in its original state.

[2] For many exclusive devotees of Rama like Sri Ramananda, Goswami Tulasidasa, Saint Thyagaraja, and Samarth Guru Ramdas, Lord Rama happens to be the source of Lord Vishnu and all incarnations. For many Vaishnava saints like Mirabai and Surdas, Rama is an equal of Krishna; for some, he is an incarnation of Vishnu. In spite of the superficial differences, Rama has been considered divine by all Vaishnava saints.

%d bloggers like this: