Aspects of Hinduism-Origin, Development, and Comparison with Abrahamic Traditions

{ Medha Editor’s Note: Below is the Paper based on which Dr Puligandla gave his recent talk – 20th Feb 2013 – at the annual East-West Lecture Series at the University OF Toledo. The talk was heavily attended, with many unable to fit into the large lecture hall. The Q&A was also thoughtful & exciting as he handled questions from inquiring minds both skeptical & sympathetic to Hindu thought. }

The question of the origins of Hinduism is closely related to the question of the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), formulated by Western scholars; according to the AIT, the Vedic people, who called themselves “Aryans,” were not natives of India but people from central Asia and Eurasia, who invaded India and settled in India about 1500 B.C.E.  These invaders were the Aryans who brought with them the Sanskrit language, authored the Vedas, and established the Vedic society.  The Aryans were white people who conquered the indigenous dark-skinned Dravidians of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro.  Over time, the AIT was accepted as true, not only by Western, but also by Indian academics.  However, researches during the last fifty years produced vast evidence to demonstrate that AIT is simply false.  In light of this fact, supporters of the AIT moved on to the Aryan Migration Theory (AMT),  but there is absolutely no evidence for the AMT , either.  The Vedic Aryans were indigenous Indians, and therefore, Sanskrit and the Vedas are native to India.  There is not a single reference in the Vedas to the view that the Vedic Aryans came from outside and settled in India.  There are many references in the Vedas to people who left India at different times and went West.  What all this means is that the origins of Hinduism, founded in the Vedas, are in India itself.  For a thorough demonstration of the falsity of AIT and AMT, I strongly recommend that one go through the following works:  1. Origin of Indian Civilization, ed. by Bal Ram Singh, Center for Indic Studies and D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, 2010; 2. Vedic  Aryans and the origins of civilization, by N. S. Rajaram and David Frawley, Voice of India, New Delhi, third edition, 2001; and The Rigveda: A Historical Analysis, by Shrikant Talgeri, Aditya Prakashan, Delhi, 2000.
The Vedas were composed about 4600 B.C.E. and were transmitted orally by one generation to the next.  It was much later that the Vedas were put in writing.  There are four Vedas:  Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, and Atharva Veda.  Each of the Vedas contains one part dealing with practical matters, such as ethics and the conduct of rituals and ceremonies, and another dealing with questions of knowledge concerning ultimate reality and one’s true being; the first part is known as “karma-kanda” and the second as “jnana-kanda.”  The jnana-kanda is referred to as “Upanishads” and (“Vedanta,” the concluding parts of the Vedas).  Badarayana  presented the essential teachings of the Upanishads in a work, known as “Brahmasutras.” The founders of the three schools of Vedanta, Samkara, Ramanuja, and Mdhva, wrote detailed commentaries on the Brahmasutras.  Bhagavad-Gita, the dialogue between Krishna and the warrior Arjuna , is the most widely read scripture in Hinduism.  The Upanishads, Brahmasutras, and Bhagavad-Gita are known as “Prasthanatraya” the three pillars on which rests Hinduism.  Many Western scholars refer to the Vedas as the Hindu scriptures;  “scripture “ is a Western concept, meaning “the word of God.”  The Vedas are not the word of God and,  therefore, should not be referred to as scriptures;  they should be correctly called “the sacred writings of Hinduism.”  Bhagavad-Gita is scripture, since it is the word of Krishna, an avatar, incarnation of the Divine.

Let me now briefly summarize the essential teachings of Hinduism, as gathered from the Upanishads.  When the Vedic sages (rishis) turned their gaze onto the so-called external world, they found that the external world is made up of various phenomena constantly arising and passing away. What is a phenomenon?  Here is the definition:  “phenomenon” is anything that is or can in principle be an object of consciousness.  All phenomena exist in time, while some phenomena also exist in space; thus tables, chairs, electrons, stars, galaxies, human and non-human animals, etc.,  exist both in space and time, whereas thoughts, feelings, mental images, dreams, etc., exist only in time. The rishis then went on to ask whether the external world is a mere passing and fleeting world or there is some unchanging reality behind all changes.  They answered that there is indeed an unchanging reality in the midst of all changes.  That reality they called “Brahman.”  Imagine a potter making various objects, such as pots, cups, dishes, and so on out of clay; one can destroy a pot and make a plate.  What has changed? What was hitherto called a “pot” is now called a “plate,” the clay remaining the same.  The sages therefore declared that all change is change in form and name only;  just so, all phenomena in the external world are merely the various manifestations of Brahman, the unchanging reality.  Cups, pots, dishes, etc., depend upon the clay for their existence, whereas the clay exists without there being any cups, dishes, pots, etc.

The rishis then examined the so-called internal world and discovered that the internal world is also one of constant change, thoughts, feelings, images, etc., constantly arising and passing away.  They went on to ask whether the internal world is merely a fleeting world or there is some unchanging reality in the midst of all change in the internal world.  They answered by saying that there is indeed an unchanging reality behind all changes in the internal world and called that reality “Atman.”  Atman is pure (objectless) consciousness, not to be confused with mind (manas), a constantly changing phenomenon.  The question now arises:  Are there then two realities, one underlying the external world and another underlying the internal world?  The rishis proclaimed that the very idea of two ultimate realities is absurd and self-contradictory and declared that Brahman and Atman are non-different, one and the same.

Brahman is unborn, uncreated, undying, eternal, and immortal, not to be mistaken for God(s) worshipped by people.  Brahman is inconceivable and imperceivable, and hence, cannot be captured by the senses and mind.  The entire world is none other than Brahman, but Brahman is not exhausted by the world at any time, since phenomena that are not existent now may become existent at a later time (such as new stars and galaxies).  This way of understanding Brahman is Panentheism, not Pantheism, according to which Brahman is exhausted by the world.  Brahman is non-dual, in the sense that nothing other than Brahman exists and Brahman is not made up of parts (if Brahman were made up of parts, the parts, not Brahman, would be ultimate reality).  Brahman is impartite.  Whatever can be grasped by the senses and mind is a phenomenon (an object), made up of parts. Brahman cannot be grasped by the senses and mind because Brahman is not a phenomenon, an object.  Since Brahman is not an object, Brahman is indescribable.  Brahman is to be realized in non-dual intuition (prajna).

Everything that has been said about Brahman, only negatively, can also be said of Atman.  Atman is not a phenomenon, an object; Atman is impartite; Atman cannot be grasped by the senses and mind.  The consciousness of one human being cannot be distinguished from the consciousness of another human being;  further, the consciousness of a human being cannot be distinguished from that of, say, a cat.  Cats and we differ only in our psycho-physiological modes of being, not in consciousness. Atman  cannot be seen by the eye,  but is that by which the eye sees;  Atman cannot be spoken of by the tongue, but is that by which the tongue speaks, and so on. Atman is to be realized in non-dual intuition (prajna).

Hinduism subscribes to the doctrine of karma and rebirth.  What is the doctrine of karma?  Here is the explication:  Every event, a thought, word, or action, acts as a cause producing other events as effects, every one of which in turn acts as a cause bringing about yet other events as effects;  this chain of causes and effects is known as the “karmaic chain.”  The doctrine of karma is best understood as the principle of sufficient reason:  there are reasons as to why things are the way they are,  and are not the way they are not.  Things do not happen arbitrarily, haphazardly, and capriciously; there are always reasons for their happening or not happening.  What is it that science does?  Science inquires into and discovers the reasons (causes) as to why things happen and learns how to prevent things from happening.

The doctrine of rebirth is a logical consequence of the doctrine of karma.  There is always a time-lapse between cause and effect (cause first and effect next).  The causes for what is happening in the present are to be sought in the past; thus if a baby is being born now, the causes for its being born now are to be located in the past.  Thus our present lives are causally related to our past lives.  The doctrine of karma is not to be mistaken for predestination.  Simply think of how often we succeed in making plans and getting things done;  yes, sometimes we do not succeed.  What this means is that we are neither wholly free nor wholly determined.  Hinduism analyzes the question of human freedom in this manner, quite different from the way it is analyzed in the Western tradition.  As long as one generates karma, one is not wholly free;  the chief goal of Hinduism is to attain Moksha, total and absolute freedom, by stopping the generation of karma.  Moksha is not a state to be looked forward to after death;  rather, Moksha is to be attained here and now, while fully embodied.  A person who so attains Moksha is known as “Jivanmukta,” the living-free.

Different inquirers interpreted the Upanishads differently and founded different schools of Vedanta:  Advaita Vedanta (non-dualistic Vedanta) of Samkara, Visistadvaita (qualified non-dualistic Vedanta) of Ramanuja, and Dvaita Vedanta (Dualistic Vedanta) of Madhva.  Of these three schools, Samkara’s Advaita Vedanta is the most famous and widely followed.  I myself consider Samkara’s Advaita Vedanta as the most faithful to the Upanishads themselves.  As such, my references to Vedanta in this paper are from Samkara’s works.  According to Samkara, the real is that which always is and the world is an appearance of the real, Brahman;  the world appears, disappears, and reappears, whereas Brahman, non-different from Atman, always is.  Let it be emphasized that the world is not unreal  but only an appearance.  Imagine an actor, John,  who plays different roles on the stage on different days; one day as Napoleon, another day as Caesar, yet another day as a pharaoh, and so on.  The Napoleon that one sees on the stage is not unreal but the appearance of John;  an unreal, non-existent Napoleon cannot be an object of our consciousness;  when the play is over, Napoleon disappears, but John the actor continues to exist.  The world is like the Napoleon one sees on the stage.  The world is thus the appearance of Brahman (Atman).  In the famous Mandukya Upanishad, the briefest of all the Upanishads, the three modes of our being are examined: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep.  In the waking state, we have external perceptions;  in the dream state, we have internal perceptions; and in the state of deep sleep, we have absolutely no perceptions, external or internal.  In deep sleep, there is no world, no I or me, no God, and so on.  But as soon as one wakes up, one sees the world.  Atman exists in all the three states;  if Atman does not exist in all the three states, there will not be any continuity between one state and another.  Atman is thus the real, which always is.  The Mandukya Upanishad also demonstrates why Brahman and Atman are non-different, one and the same.  Since everything disappears in deep sleep and only Atman continues to exist, Atman is ultimate reality; and since there cannot be two ultimate realities, it follows that Atman is Brahman.

Beyond deep sleep, there is a mode of being known as “Turiya,” meaning the Fourth.  When one is in deep sleep, one does not know that one is in deep sleep.  Turiya is just like deep sleep, except that in Turiya, one knows that one is in deep sleep; consequently, one knows in Turiya that even when the world, God, I or me disappear, there is a reality about oneself that does not disappear;  that reality is Atman (Brahman).  Turiya is therefore referred to as “highest wakefulness.”  Scientific research has shown that there is an enhancement of delta waves in deep sleep, not accompanied by any other waves, whereas in Turiya, there is enhancement of delta waves accompanied by alpha waves associated with the waking state.

I shall now list a few of the great pronouncements (mahavakyas) from the Upanishads:  Yatha sat, tat Brahma (whatever exists is Brahman);  Advitiyam Brahma (Brahman is that without a second); Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman); Tatvam asi (You are That, Brahman); Ayam Atma Brahma (This Atman is Brahman); and Prajnanam Brhma (Brahman is pure consciousness).

A cautionary note:  Many Western scholars and their filial Indian followers translate “Brahman” as God, and “Atman “ as soul.  We have already pointed out that the Upanishads declare that Brahman is not to be mistaken for God (s) worshipped by people.  “Soul” is a Western concept and has no Vedic counterpart (equivalent).  In the Western tradition, “soul” is used in plural, whereas in the Vedas, Atman is singular and non-dual (there is just Atman, no Atmans);  thus, that there are twenty people in a room does not mean that there are twenty Atmans (consciousnesses) in the room;  rather, there are twenty conscious beings (manifestations of consciousness) in the room.  Further, according to the Western tradition, there was a time when there were no souls;  God created souls at sometime.  In keen contrast, Atman (Brahman), being timeless, always is and was never created by God.  Further, Western tradition teaches that souls are immortal (deathless);  according to the Vedas, nothing that is created (has a beginning in time) can be immortal.  Atman is immortal since it is birthless;  thus, according to the Vedas, “immortal” means birthless and deathless.  So if one wants to avoid death, one should also avoid birth.

There are two ways of understanding the Vedas, the esoteric and the exoteric.  In the esoteric way, Brahman is not understood as God, the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the world.  Rather, Brahman is understood as the world and more than the world (panentheism).  In the exoteric way, Brahman is understood as Ishwara (God), creator, preserver, and destroyer of the world.  One can choose Ishwara in any form and name most pleasing to oneself.  Thus, Ishwara can be chosen as male, female, or androgenous.  Ishwara so chosen is known as “Ishtadevata,” one’s favorite God or Goddess. All Gods and Goddesses are the various manifestations of Brahman.  Because people worship Gods and Goddesses, therefore, there are temples;  people do not worship Brahman and hence there is not a single temple for Brahman.

Understood in the exoteric way, there is the Hindu Trinity:  Brahma (not to be confused with Brahman) is the creator of the world;  Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the world; and Shiva, the destroyer of the world.  Each member of the Trinity, has also a wife, female consort.  In a Hindu temple, one does not see just a God or Goddess, but sees God and Goddess together.  The idea here is that it is only when the God and Goddess come together, will there be creativity.

Hinduism is unique in the sense that it long ago realized that no single path will serve everyone well.  Human beings differ from each other in many respects and therefore different types of people need different paths for attaining Moksha.  Hence there are different Yogas, each serving best a certain type of people.  “Yoga,” as defined by Patanjali, the author of Yogasutras, is citta vrtti nirodha (cessation of mental modifications).  The main purpose of Yoga is to render the mind calm, quiet, and still, so that the non-dual intuition (prajna) can arise and one can directly and immediately realize Atman (Brahman).  There are four Yogas:  Bhakti-Yoga (Yoga of Devotion), Karma-Yoga (Yoga of Action),  Jnana-Yoga (Yoga of Knowledge),  and Raja-Yoga (Yoga of psycho-physiological Exploration).  Bhakti-Yoga serves best people who have unshakable, rocklike faith.  The practitioner of this Yoga chooses Ishwara in a form that pleases him most, worships Ishwara, and meditates upon Him (Her).  He lives in constant remembrance of Ishwara and becomes wholly dependent on Ishwara.  In this manner, he cultivates humility and eventually loses his ego.  It is then that Ishwara no longer appears to him in any form and name and the devotee (Bhakta) directly realizes his true being as Atman (Brahman).  As long as Ishwara appears to him, he only sees Ishwara as an object, not as Atman.

Karma-Yoga serves most effectively people who by nature, temperament, and talent are restless and active.  These people are committed to enhancing the wellbeing of the world and perform actions most unselfishly to help the poor, needy, oppressed, and so on.  The practitioners of this Yoga are required to perform actions without attachment to the fruits of the actions (nishkama-karma) and regard their actions as offerings to Ishwara.  It is not, however, necessary for one to be a theist to practice this Yoga;  one is to perform actions, not for one’s  own benefit, but as contributions to general wellbeing, without any attachment to the fruits of the actions.  It is through such committed practice one loses the ego and eventually realizes one’s true being as Atman (Brahman).

Jnana-Yoga is for the very cerebral people, who do not accept any doctrine or teaching unless it is thoroughly examined and analyzed logically and empirically;  they accept only those teachings which withstand such intellectual scrutiny. In this manner, the practitioners of this Yoga first intellectually grasp ultimate reality and then meditate for the direct realization of Atman.  Through intellect and meditation,  these people also discover that the ego is not their true being and eventually realize Atman.

Raja-Yoga is for people who are capable of directly working on the mind.  This Yoga consists of various exercises in psycho-physiological exploration  and meditation which enable them to lose the ego and realize Atman.  Let it be emphasized that all the four Yogas have the same goal,  the realization of Atman (Brahman),  each Yoga serving best certain type of people.  To prescribe the same path for everyone is like a doctor’s prescribing the same medicine for all patients . Many of the patients suffer more and even die.  Very rarely does one practice one Yoga to the exclusion of the others.  One often practices two Yogas, one primary and the other secondary.

I shall conclude this presentation with some comparative observations on Hinduism and other Indic traditions with the Abrahamic traditions.  Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism are all Indic traditions, in that they all have their foundation in the Vedas.  All these traditions are known as “Dharmic traditions.”  There is no straightforward (one-word) translation of “Dharma,” which comes from the Sanskrit root “Dhr,” which means to support, maintain, preserve, promote, etc.  “Dharma” has a cluster of meanings, such as truth, justice, that which is appropriate, duties, rights, obligations, etc. There is dharma wherever there are societies;  there cannot be any societies without dharma.  It is to be noted that there is dharma also in non-human societies.  Simply think of a herd of elephants or a pride of lions, you will see the point.  Dharma, as clarified in the Vedas, is known as “Sanatana dharma” (eternal dharma).  Hinduism , grounded in the Vedas, is Sanatana dharma.  Borrowing a pharase from my learned friend, Rajiv Malhotra, all dharmic traditions are characterized by Integral Unity.  “Integral Unity” means the unity underlying the view that ultimate reality is one and impartite. This means that the physical, the mental, the emotional the microcosm and the macrocosm, are not separate from each other,  but are different manifestations of ultimate reality.  Therefore, in the dharmic traditions there are absolutely no conflicts among science, philosophy, and religion (spirituality).  Various teachers in the dharmic traditions, such as the rishis, the Buddha, Jaina, Guru Nanak, and others elaborated the Integral Unity by formulating different theories.  While there are differences in these elaborations, each of the dharmic traditions respects the others.  The reason for this is that all dharmic traditions acknowledge the Integral Unity.  Each of these traditions has provided its own methods and procedures for the realization of ultimate reality.  Most importantly, in all the dharmic traditions every person has to realize ultimate reality by direct and immediate knowing . Such knowing is known as “Embodied knowing,” not just believing what others and books have to say.  Thus all the dharmic traditions have Adhyatma vidya, learning and practice pertaining to the attainment of knowledge of one’s true being ultimate reality, Brahman).

In sharp contrast with the dharmic traditions, characterized by Integral Unity, the Wetern tradition (civilization) is characterized by what my scholarly friend, Rajiv Malhotra, calls “Synthetic Unity,” which, unlike Integral Unity, is not intrinsic but something imposed  upon by trying to combine elements external to each other. Western civilization is a blend of the intellectual heritage of the Greeks and the religious (spiritual) heritage of the Hebrews.  Consequently, in the West, there have been conflicts among science, philosophy, and religion.  Further, all the three Abrahamic  traditions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,  unlike the dharmic traditions, are history-centered.  One cannot be a Jew unless one believes that there existed  Abraham, Moses, and other prophets, and the Ten Commandments were actually given by God to Moses;  one cannot be a Christian unless one believes that there existed a person called “Jesus,” the only son of God who was born of a virgin, crucified, resurrected, and ascended to heaven, and that Jesus, through his death (sacrifice) redeemed the world of its sins, in particular the original sin, and salvation comes only by accepting Jesus as the savior; and one cannot be a Muslim unless one believes that there existed a man called “Mohammed,” the last of the prophets who received the Koran from angel Gabriel.  In keen contrast, the dharmic traditions do not subscribe to any historical beliefs;  further, the dharmic traditions are non-prophetic traditions;  that is, none of the Vedic rishis nor the Buddha nor the Jaina nor Guru Nanak is regarded as a prophet.  Western civilization became Christian because Constatine, the Roman Emperor, declared Christianity as state religion;  and Western Enlightenment and modern science are the result of Westerners going back to the intellectual achievements of ancient Greeks.  Pre-Christian Greek civilization had Integral Unity, although it was not a dharmic tradition.  One can, however,  persuasively argue that the ancient Greek tradition had some characteristics of a dharmic tradition.

Synthetic Unity was obtained quite often through force and violence.  This is to be expected because of the attempts to harmonize and unify things borrowed from different civilizations, such as the intellectual  tradition of the ancient Greeks and the religious (spiritual) tradition of the ancient Hebrews. Let it be emphasized, further, that embodied knowing, characteristic of all the dharmic traditions, had rarely occupied a central place in the prophetic traditions.  People in the Abrahamic traditions seek salvation through a savior, whereas people in the dharmic traditions seek Mosksha (liberation from the cycle of births and deaths), not salvation since they do not subscribe to the doctrine of original sin.  The primary difference between the dharmic  and the Abrahamic traditions is that the dharmic traditions subscribe to the doctrine of original ignorance (primordial avidya), ignorance concerning ultimate reality and one’s true being.  Ignorance is to be conquered by knowledge (vidya), not through a savior.





  1. Origin of Indian Civilization, ed. by Bal Ram Singh, Center for Indic Studies and D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, 2010
  2. Vedic Aryans and the origins of civilization, by Navaratna S. Rajaram and David Frawley, Voice of India, New Delhi, third edition, 2001
  3. The Rigveda:  A Historical Analysis, by Shrikant Talageri, Aditya Prakashan, Delhi, 2000
  4. Being Different:  An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, Rajiv Malhotra, Harper Collins Publishers India, a joint venture with The India Today Group, New Delhi, 2011
  5. Brahma-Sutra Bhasya of Sankaracarya, tr. By Swami Gambhirananda, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, third edition, 1977
  6. Eight Upanishads, With the Commentary of Sankaracarya, tr. By Swami Gambhirananda, Vol. I,       Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1977; Vol. II, 1982
  7. That Thou Art: The Wisdom of the Upanishads, by Ramakrishna Puligandla, D.K. Printworld, New Delhi, 2009

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