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Lecture Two
The Many Paths of Hinduism
Of all the religions in the world, Hinduism is arguably the most complex and
sophisticated. Hinduism embraces a broad range of beliefs from animism,
the concept that trees and even rivers are alive, to Brahman, the most
philosophical concept of God ever conceived by man. But all of this was
conditioned by India, one of the world’s oldest civilizations. And there came
to India early on the realization that it was impossible to unite all its varying
peoples by one way alone, that the way “to unity was through diversity.”
Two Paths in Life
If we were to take a look at Hinduism as a totality, we could say that it
affirms life as a whole. That everything in this life is good, but, it has its
limits. But Hinduism is patient, and, it realizes that it often takes many
lifetimes to realize that there are degrees of happiness. That at some point,
we must ask, “is there anything more than this?” As St. Augustine wrote in
his Confessions, “Lord grant me chastity but not yet.” Hinduism would agree
with this assessment.
There are two basic paths in life, the path of desire and the path of
renunciation. Desires in and of themselves are not bad. At first glance this
may seem strange as we often think of India as austere and other-worldly.
We think of gurus and Gandhi. But at the beginning of life—and remember
all of this must be put in the context of many lifetimes—there is the desire
for pleasure. We in the West certainly know this as a desire. The ancient
Greeks gave it a name, hedonism, literally, the pursuit of pleasure. Now
pleasure is not the highest good but it is not bad either. Hindu temples
abound with erotic images of the deities. In the film A Passage to India,
Adela Quested travels to India to visit her fiancée and is awakened to her
own sensuality by its culture. One day she stumbles into an ancient temple
with its sensual images of the gods and suddenly becomes aware of her own
desires and the limitations of her fiancée. Unlike the West, India never said
that the body and its desires were bad. But it does say that at some point
we must move on. Augustine echoed these sentiment when he said, “God,
my heart is restless until it rests in thee.”
The second goal of life is success, with its focus on money, fame, and power.
We in the West know this goal, because, it is for most Westerners the goal
of life. You could argue that this pursuit of money—even more than fame
and power—became the overriding goal of Western Civilization. To a large
extent it was due to the influence of John Calvin, that dour Frenchman, who
argued that if all men are predestined by God to heaven or hell than success
is certainly a sign that we are part of that elect, because God would not
reward the elect with poverty. This theology had a profound effect on the
Western sense of individualism and “making something of yourself.” India
does not deny that these are acceptable desires—and modern India certainly
knows that all too well—but what it says is that even these have limits.
The true turn towards real religion occurs when one seeks meaning outside
of one’s personal desires. This is the path of renunciation, which has as its
goal “duty” towards one family and community. Indians have a word for
this, dharma. There is a saying in Hinduism that one must first do one’s duty
to one’s family and only then seek the higher stages of life. Indian life
prizes marriage, and despite those who renounce sexual activity, marriage is
the norm. The deities themselves have their consorts, Krishna and Radha,
Rama and Sita. These are the ideals of marriage in Hindu scripture. But at
some point, we must ask, is this all there is? As Aldous Huxley wrote, “when
one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?”
The final goal of life is liberation, or moksha. And what is it we are freed
from? From all the limitations of life, both physical and psychological.
Hinduism asserts that most men walk around ignorant of the divinity within
them. This notion that we are ignorant of the divine within us has echoes in
Gnosticism, an early form of Christianity that died out after the 4th c. AD.
According to the Gnostics there is a divine spark within us that can only be
known through a special gnosis (i.e., knowledge). The Gospel of Thomas, a
Gnostic Gospel discovered in the ancient library at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in
1945, is more akin to Hindu spirituality when it states: “If you your leaders
say to you, ‘Look, the Father’s kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the
sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will
precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside you and outside you. When you
know yourselves, then you will be known…but if you do not know yourselves,
then you live in poverty…”
The Four Paths to God
The ultimate goal of life is to free oneself from the limitations of life and
achieve union with God (or, samadhi). Over the course of centuries four
yogas have evolved to achieve this purpose. It has given to Hinduism a
spirituality as rich as any religious tradition. The major division is between
jnana yoga and bhakti yoga, or the path to God through knowledge and the
path to God through devotion. In Hinduism you do not have to fit yourself
into one spiritual box, either way is acceptable.
The Way to God through Knowledge (or, jnana yoga) is only for the spiritual
elite. Or as psychologists would say it is for those with a more reflective
personality. Hindus say it is the quickest way to God but also the steepest.
The goal is to achieve union with God through a series of discriminations:
the first step is to learn from the spiritual classics, in particular, the
Upanishads which remains the source for this way. The second step is to
distinguish the outer self from the true Self within (the Atman). One of the
most famous images is that of a chariot and charioteer who is guiding a
team of horses. In the chariot is a passenger, a Lord, who is guided by the
charioteer (or, reason). “Know the Atman as Lord of a chariot,” says the
writer, “and the body as the chariot itself. Know that reason is the
charioteer; and the mind indeed is the reins.” The third and last step is to
achieve oneness with God, so that you and God become one
(Atman/Brahman). Since this path was essentially pantheistic or monist
(i.e., that all reality is Brahman), it was not widely accessible to the general
The Way to God through Love (or, bhakti yoga) is for the more emotional or
affective personality. For the bhakta devotee, God is not an impersonal
force of the universe but a personal god who can be approached. Bhakti
yoga insists on God’s otherness and refuses to reduce all reality to God.
There is a saying in this tradition, “I want to taste sugar, I don’t want to be
sugar.” The bhakta strives to adore God and not identify with him/her. And
this is where all the images of God enter, the myths, the great epics; all
serve to draw the heart towards God in loving devotion. To call this
paganism is to completely misunderstand Hinduism, because these images
are not meant to represent capricious beings that live on a faraway
mountain, but symbols of the varying aspects of the one God Brahman. The
core of bhakti yoga is found in the Bhagavad-Gita and its message of a
loving God has remained central to Hindu practice. In a section that echoes
the Gospels, Krishna says:
“Whatever your action, Food or worship;
Whatever the gift That you give to another;
Whatever you vow To the work of the spirit: O son of Kunti,
Lay these also As offerings before me.”
The bhakta tends to focus their worship on one particular deity, as it is
easier from a human standpoint to devote one’s energies to one particular
form, in particular, the human incarnations of God, Krishna or Rama. But
devotion to the mother goddess is also strong, especially in the southern
part of India. Hinduism is the only major religion to keep the feminine
aspect of God alive.
The Way to God through Work (or, karma yoga) is a practical compromise
between the first two yogas, for most of us have to work. It can be
practiced in either the jnana or bhakti mode; i.e., as much as possible, you
try to make your personality fit your job. The reflective personality is
drawn to more contemplative endeavors, while the affective to more outgoing pursuits. This yoga goes back to the early Vedic emphasis on doing
one’s duty (dharma) in this life and only then pursuing higher spiritual goals.
This echoes the Judeo-Christian idea of vocation, that we are called by God
from the moment of birth, as the prophet Jeremiah says, “Before I formed
you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you…”(Jer
1:5). The monastic movement within Christianity echoes this sentiment with
the simple phrase, “to work is to pray.” The Gita simply says, “He who
performs the task dictated by duty, caring nothing for the fruit of the action,
he is a yogi.”
There are always the experimental types and the last of the paths is for
them. Raja yoga is known as the “royal road to reintegration.” It is not
mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita but came to refer to the various steps that
lead to samadhi, or union with God. It is important to realize that in some
way all Hindus practice some form of meditation. The important point is to
find the one path that best suits your personality without totally neglecting
the other three.
Through four millennia Hinduism has been revitalized by spiritual leaders.
One of these was Ramakrishna (1836-1886) who from an early age devoted
himself to the goddess Kali. He communicated with her through intense
meditation practices. At one point he exclaimed:
When I jumped up like a madman and seized [a sword], suddenly the
blessed Mother revealed herself. The buildings with their different
parts, the temple, and everything vanished from my sight, leaving no
trace whatsoever, and in their stead I saw a limitless, infinite,
effulgent Ocean of Consciousness. As far as the eye could see, the
shining billows were madly rushing at me from all sides with a terrific
noise, to swallow me up. I was caught in the rush and collapsed,
unconscious … within me there was a steady flow of undiluted bliss,
altogether new, and I felt the presence of the Divine Mother.
Ramakrishna came to the realization that the presence of God could be
experienced both as formed and formless, in this way combining the best of
the paths to God. His message appealed to both the upper classes, who
were more likely to take a philosophical approach, and the lower classes,
who tended to practice bhakti. Ramakrishna's message was welcomed by
both the rural and urban people who did puja (prayers) to the divine mother
Kali as a protective and benevolent deity. These devotees saw him as a
great teacher who sang the names of God and talked incessantly about God.
The sincere devotee could even hope for a vision or dream of the divine
mother. Ramakrishna taught the truth of all religions and his universalism
inspired the Ramakrishna Movement (or, Vedanta Society). One of his most
famous disciples was Vivekananda (1863-1902), who was the first Hindu
monk to come to America. He addressed the 1893 Parliament of Religions at
the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and later successfully toured the United
States to sold-out audiences for four years. A statue of Swami Vivekananda
now graces a hill leading to the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago in Lemont,