An outline of Hindu dharma

Hindu dharma is a diverse system. However, there are some basic concepts accepted by the vast majority of (astika) Hindus. These are:

1. Scripture (Sruti and Smriti)

The primary texts of Sanathana Dharma includes four Vedas, Sixteen Brahmanas, four Aranyakas, One Hundred and Eight Upanishads, Six Vedangas, five Upavedas, eighteen Mahapuranas, eighteen Upapuranas, six Darsanas, eighteen Smritis and two Ithihasas.The major scriptures are the Vedas (specially the Upanishads also called Sruti), the Bhagavad Gita (Smriti). Two popular scriptures are Ramayana and Mahabharata. Different Hindu sects may have additional scriptures.

Hindu attitude towards scripture differs from that of Abrahamic faiths. Hindu scripture can not be quoted to override reason as can be seen from the following quotes.

Sri Sankara, the famous Advaita philosopher, makes the same point in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita 18.66:

" …… The appeal to the infallibility of the Vedic injunction is misconceived. The infallibility in question refers only to the unseen force or apurva, and is admissable only in regard to matters not confined to the sphere of direct perceptions etc. ….. Even a hundred statements of sruti to the effect that fire is cold and non-luminous won't prove valid. If it does make such a statement, its import will have to be interpreted differently.

Otherwise , validity won't attach to it. Nothing in conflict with the means of valid cognition or with its own statement may be imputed to sruti." (Bhagavad Gita Bhashya of Sri Sankaracharya translated by Dr. A.G. Krishna Warrier).

Yoga Vasishta Ramayan (II-18) says:

"Though human in origin, an exposition of truth is to be accepted; otherwise even what is regarded as divine revealation is to be rejected. Even a young boy's words are to be accepted if they are words of wisdom; else reject it like straw even if uttered by Brahma the creator." (Vasishta's Yoga translated by Swami Venkatesananda)

Vacaspati Misra, the author of Vamati, says, "Even one thousand scriptural statements cannot transform a jar into a piece of cloth".

2. Ultimate Reality (Brahman)

The existence of an Ultimate Reality called BRAHMAN. All Hindu sects agree that Brahman is Satchidanand (existence-knowledge-bliss). There are, however, differences among Hindu theologians about whether this Reality is Impersonal or Personal. However, most Hindus except for athiests have shraddha (shraddha will be explained in point number 6) in this Reality.

Different philosophers in Vedanta stress different aspects of this Ultimate Reality. Sri Sankara stressed the impersonal aspect of the Ultimate Reality, i.e, according to him, Brahman is Pure Consciousness. there are Personal forms of Brahman but considers them to be not completely real compared to the Impersonal Reality. Vaishnava Acharyas like Sri Ramanuja, Sri Madhva etc only accept one Personal form of Brahman. Sri Ramakrishna accepts both Personal and Impersonal Reality. The analogy used by Sri Ramakrishna is that of the world's oceans. The world's oceans contain both the formless, colorless water and icebergs (in Arctic and Antartic oceans). Similarly Brahman is both Personal and Impersonal. The Personal and the Impersonal are merely two aspects of the same Reality. The Personal form serves the needs of the Bhakta (devotee) while the Impersonal is for the Jnani (those who use the path of knowledge). The various Hindu Devas and Devis are different Personal forms of the One Reality. Different Hindu sects worship different Personal Forms of Brahman.

3. Atman and Its relationship with Brahman

The vast majority of Hindus also accept that this Ultimate Reality has an individual aspect called ATMAN. It is the presence of this Atman in us, the immanent divinity, that makes us (jivas) conscious. There are, however, profound differences among Hindu philosophers about the precise relation between Brahman and Atman. Sri Sankara argues that Atman and Brahman are the same Reality. Sri Ramanuja's position is that Atman and Brahman are different but form an indissoluble unity. The analogy is to a fruit where Brahman may be thought of as the seed and Atman as the flesh and skin of the fruit. Sri Madhva considers Atman and Brahman to be eternally different. Sri Ramakrishna considers these 3 views to be correct for different levels of evolution of jivas. When the jiva starts to think about God, he or she thinks god to be distant and then Sri Madhva's position is justified. When the jiva makes progress in realizing God and can see the Personal form of God then Sri Ramanuja's description is appropriate. When the jiva experiences the Impersonal Reality then all duality vanishes and Sri Sankara was describing this experience.

4. Divinity of Jiva, heaven and hell, Reincarnation and law of Karma

Since man (jiva) is conscious due to Atman, man is potentially divine. Jivas commit sin because they are unaware of the divine Atman. Even though a man may commit henious sin his Atman is unaffected by it. Since no man can do infinite amount of good or bad, there is no concept of eternal heaven or hell. (Sri Madhva is an exception in promoting the idea of an eternal hell). Upon death the jiva enters the astral world and remains there till it reincarnates in accordance with the law of Karma. The law of Karma is the law of cause and effect. It is the divine law of justice by which an individual creates his own destiny through thought, word and deed.

5. Ultimate Goal

Hindu dharma says that man must purify his heart, experience the Ultimate Reality and be free. Freedom from all imperfections is the goal of human life.

6. Shraddha, Belief, No Savior

Hindu philosophy does not ask for blind belief but only Shraddha. Shraddha means open mind. It is not good to have belief in unproveable things. Mere belief is also not very useful since belief alone can not help one attain the ultimate goal of God realization. Only God realization can help one free oneself from the cycle of birth and death (called Samsara). There is no concept of Savior. One has to free oneself by one's own effort. No savior can help one achieve God realization without one's personal effort.

7. Spiritual Aids

Help from a spiritually awakened Master (Guru) is essential for God realization. The other requirements for God realization are good conduct (Yama and Niyama), purification of the mind, yoga and meditation.

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