- What is Hinduism?
- Who is a Hindu?
- What is unique about the
- What are the seasons of
the Indian Calendar?
- What is Ahinsã?
- How does the practice
of self-defense fit into the concept of Ahinsã?
- What is the Ãtmã?
- What is Karma?
- What is Reincarnation?
- What is Moksha?
- Why are there so many
Gods in Hinduism?
A. Summary Answer:
Hinduism or Sanatan Dharma is the world’s oldest religion.
It is the native religion of India. It predates recorded history
and has no human founder. Vedic records dating back 6,000 to
10,000 years show that even in that time period, Hinduism was
considered an ancient religion. Today, there are almost 1 billion
Hindus spread around the world. That makes one out of every
sixth person in the world a Hindu. Its modes of worship are
complex and range from grand festivals such as the Kumbhmelã
(a religious gathering of over 45 million people) to the simple
darshan (devotional seeing) of home shrines. Its places of worship
include millions of ancient and contemporary shrines and mandirs.
Hinduism recognizes the Vedas as the most ancient and authoritative
body of religious literature. They are the foundational scriptures
common to all branches of Hinduism.
Hinduism: Unity in Diversity
There are two aspects of Hinduism. One is easily seen in the
outward expression of the faith – the ritual worship,
customs and traditions and codes of social conduct – the
practices of Hinduism. The other aspect of Hinduism is inward
– faith itself – the inner world of belief. To an
observer it would appear that there is a bewildering array of
often contradictory beliefs embraced by the various branches
of Hinduism. It is because Hinduism encompasses such a wide
range of beliefs and practices that people find it difficult
to cast it into a single mold. Yet, within this amazing diversity
of thought and behavior, there are common threads that unify
the faithful underneath the umbrella of Hinduism.
Common Beliefs of Hinduism
Hinduism acknowledges the existence of many deities but believes
in only one Supreme God who is all-pervasive and transcendent.
Hinduism states that God manifests (avatãr) on earth
for the salvation of infinite souls and is always present through
the murtis, consecrated images of God. Hinduism teaches that
this universe along with infinite other universes undergoes
endless cycles of creation, preservation, and dissolution by
this Supreme God.
Regarding the Ãtma (soul)
Hindus believe that all living entities have a soul, or ãtma.
Each is eternal – it was never created and will never
perish. The ãtmã is characterized as unchanging
truth, consciousness and bliss (Satchitanand). Moreover, each
has the potential to attain God.
Hinduism propounds the law of karma, cause and effect, wherein
the fruits on an individual’s thoughts, words, and deeds
are given by God. Hinduism teaches that the ãtmã
casts off old bodies and is given new ones based on it karmas.
In this way the ãtmã passes through infinite cycles
of birth and death (reincarnation) until it realizes God and
attains moksha. Hindus believe that one requires a spiritually
enlightened and God-realized guru to attain God.
Common Practices in Hinduism
These common beliefs of Hinduism manifest in several common
practices. All branches of Hinduism emphasize the need for a
moral and ethical life. Hinduism upholds the eternal values
and ideals of Satya (Truth), Dayã (Compassion), Ahinsã
(Non-violence), and Brahmachãrya (Celibacy). Remaining
faithful to these values and other scriptural injunctions, the
Hindu always tries to maintain a balance in life among the four
endeavors of Dharma, Artha, Kãm, and Moksha.
- Dharma – to live
righteously, in accordance with scriptural commands - purity
of diet, thought, and social interactions.
- Artha – to accumulate
earnings for one’s subsistence.
- Kãm– (1)
to use one’s honest earnings for the fulfillment of one’s
(2) and for a man to only keep one wife and regard other women
as a mother, sister, or a daughter; and for a woman to only
keep one husband and regard other men as a father, brother,
- Moksha – to use
the previous three endeavors to attain salvation.
Thus, the Hindu system of beliefs
provides guidance for both the spiritual and material realm.
Who is a Hindu?
A Hindu is a follower of Hinduism, the native religion of the
people of India.
A Hindu accepts the authority of Vedic scriptures and follows
the common practices of Hinduism. A Hindu is inclined to revere
the divine in every manifestation and is tolerant of the peaceful
practices of other faiths.
The word “Hindu” was originally coined by the ancient
Persians to describe the people living east of the “Sindhu”,
or Indus River. The term spread westward, and eventually it became
popularized throughout the world. It was only with the invasion
of India, first by the Muslims and then by the British that the
term “Hindu” came into use in India. Prior to that,
the practitioners of the native religion of India called their
religion, ‘Sanãtan Dharma’ – the Eternal
Religion. It was known as eternal, because the Truths revealed
by it are true today, were true before this universe existed,
and will be true even after the destruction of the universe.
What is unique about
the Indian Calendar?
modern western calendar that we are accustomed to is based on
the sun in which a year (365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46
seconds) is the time required for the earth to complete one orbit
around the sun. This solar year is composed of 12 arbitrarily
assigned months which have either 30 or 31 days, with the exception
The Indian calendar is based on both the sun and the moon. The
Indian calendar uses the solar year but divides it into 12 lunar
months. They are listed in order from beginning to end: Kãrtik,
Mãghshar, Posh, Mãgh (Mahã), Fãlgun,
Chaitra, Vaishãk, Jeth, Ashãdh, Shrãvan,
Bhãdarvo, and Ãso. A lunar month is the time required
for the moon to orbit once around the earth and pass through its
complete cycle of phases. These months are formulated not arbitrarily,
but in accordance with the successive entrances of the sun into
the 12 rãshis, the 12 constellations of the zodiac marking
the path of the sun.
A lunar month is precisely 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and
3 seconds long. Twelve such months make up a lunar year of 354
days, 8 hours, 48 minutes, and 36 seconds. To ensure that the
corresponding seasons according to the lunar months coincide with
those of the solar year, an extra month is inserted every 30 months
(approximately every 2½ years) because 62 lunar months
are equal to 60 solar months. As a result of the adjustment, the
seasons and festivals retain their general position relative to
the solar year.
Each lunar month is divided into two pakshas (two parts) –
the sud or shukla paksh (the bright half of the month when the
moon waxes from a new moon to a full moon) and the vad or krishna
paksh (the dark half of the month when the moon wanes from a full
moon to a new moon). Each paksha is divided into 15 tithis (lunar
days) which follow the names of Sanskrit numerical system.
The era that is currently used in the Indian calendar is the Vikram
Samvat Era, which began in 57 BCE when King Vikram drove off a
Greek invasion of the Malwa region and came to the throne. Thus,
we have the following conversion to the Indian year. If the western
calendar date falls between Kartik sud 1 (the beginning of the
Indian Year) and December 31st (the end of the western calendar
year), then 57 years should be subtracted from the Indian year
to make the conversion. If the western calendar date falls between
January 1st (the beginning of the western year) and Aso vad 30
(the end of the Indian year), then only 56 years should be subtracted
to make the conversion.
What are the seasons
of the Indian Calendar?
A. In the Indian
calendar, the 12 lunar months of a solar year are divided into
six rutus (seasons), each comprising of approximately two months.
Since the seasons are solar based, each of the six seasons –
Sharad (late monsoon), Hemant (early winter), Shishir (winter),
Vasant (spring), Grishma (summer) and Varshã (monsoon)
commence around the 21st of each even month of the Western calendar.
| Q.5 What
Ahinsã is not just non-violence. It also encompasses respect
and consideration for life and peaceful, harmonious living.
The Concept of Ahinsã
Ahinsã is the feeling that attempts to reduce harm to
all living creatures. The concept of Ahinsã is meant
to be practiced by:
not having thoughts of ill-will towards others
word - not
using speech to slander or malign others
deed - not
performing violent physical actions
In renowned Hindu scriptures such
as the Mahãbhãrat (3-207-7), the Vãsudev
Mãhãtmya (20/21), and the Padma Purãn (1.31.27),
Ahinsã is referred to as the highest virtue of life:
Ahinsã paramo dharma. Bhagwãn Swãminãrayan
has referred to the practice of Ahinsã throughout His
Shikshãpatri - the code of conduct for devotees:
scriptures advocate Ahinsã as the highest dharma.”(Verse
should not harm any living being. They should not intentionally
harm even small insects.” (Verse 11)
for performing yagnas (ceremonial and divine sacrifices) to
please deities or ancestors, no harm should be inflicted on
any living being.” (Verse 12)
for acquiring women, wealth or a kingdom, one should never,
in any way, harm or kill any person.” (Verse 155)
Vegetarianism: An Application
A practical application of Ahinsã seen in Hinduism is
vegetarianism - as it fosters the sentiment of respect for other
living creatures. The most ancient Hindu scriptures curbed the
practice of killing animals by imposing strict ritualistic regulations
which are very difficult to ordinarily meet. Those who were
following the spiritual path and wanted to attain God were prohibited
altogether from killing animals and consuming animal flesh because
such consumption hinders spiritual progress. Hindu scriptures
say that killing animals and consuming their flesh leads to
violence in our thoughts and behavior. It spoils one’s
character and obstructs one’s acquisition of noble virtues.
Today, some people feel that because they are not actually killing
the animal themselves, eating the flesh and other body parts
of a dead animal does not violate the code of Ahinsã.
However, Hindus consider the consumption of dead animal flesh
to be a barbaric practice. The Vãsudev Mãhãtmya
and other Hindu scriptures state that one who consumes animal
flesh, who sells animal flesh, or who prepares animal flesh
– all of these people accrue the same sin as the person
who slaughters the animal. This is similar to the Western idea
that the murderer and the accessory to the murder are both guilty
of the killing.
Some people argue that God has given us the ability to kill
animals and digest animal flesh; therefore God must have wanted
us to eat animals. One could easily respond that God has given
us the intelligence and ability to kill humans and digest human
flesh, so in that belief system, did God give us this ability
because he wanted us to eat human flesh? The flaw in this argument
becomes clear here. These people have made the grave error of
confusing ability and civility, or ethics. Men may have the
ability to kill animals and eat animal flesh, but that does
not make it right. Humans have the ability to do some very bad
things. But civilization, ethics, morality, and dharma are all
meant to restrain man from exercising his full barbaric, animalistic
capability and instead, to elevate him from this animalistic
condition to the plane of humanity and even higher to the plane
of spirituality. It is with this intent of elevating mankind
from just a human being to a spiritual being that Hinduism has
propagated the value of Ahinsã and its corollary vegetarianism.
How does the practice
of self-defense fit into the concept of Ahinsã?
is not just non-violence or not resorting to arms, but it is also
the feeling that tries to reduce harm to all living creatures.
Sometimes, force or violence may in fact be necessary to prevent
harm. Suppose a train is heading towards a child who is standing
in the middle of railroad tracks. We would be inclined to push
the child out of the way to save his or her life. Suppose that
a wild animal is running ferociously to attack a group of tourists.
The animal may need to be wounded to prevent harm to numerous
people. Ahinsã recognizes the right to defend one’s
self, family, community, and country through the most feasible
and appropriate, yet least violent, means necessary. However,
defending oneself should never be used to justify violence that
is not provoked or warranted. One should be careful that defending
one’s self does not become a hidden form of aggression.
What is the Ãtmã?
The ãtmã is the soul.
It is the individual self, the conscious spirit, the knower,
the enjoyer and the doer of actions. There are innumerable ãtmãs,
fundamentally the same, yet each distinct entities. The ãtmã
is eternal. It was not created at anytime by anybody nor will
it ever perish. Weapons cannot cut it, nor can fire burn it;
water cannot wet it, nor can wind dry it. Each ãtmã
pervades the whole organism, and is different from the three
bodies – gross (sthul sharir – physical body), subtle
(sukshma – mental body), and causal (kãran sharir
– accumulation of impressions from past karmas). Yet,
it is bound by worldly desires that are formed according to
its karma. Though conditioned by mãyã, the ãtmã
can be eternally released from mãyã by the grace
of a God-realized guru or God.
What is Karma?
Karma is the law of action and reaction (cause and effect) applied
to life. The ãtmã reaps fruits, good or bad, according
to its past and present actions; these fruits are experienced
either in this life or in future lives. God is the giver of the
fruits of all living beings’ actions.
There are three types of karmas – sanchit, prãrabdha,
– the stock of karmas, or accumulation of past good
and bad actions.
karmas – are the portion of sanchit karmas used up to
create the present physical body and the experiences we are
to encounter in this life.
karmas – the new actions we perform each day which shape
our future experiences of pain and joy.
Karma helps explain the disparities
that occur in the human population such as: prosperity or poverty,
happiness or misery, good health, illness, or disability. Behind
every individual’s existence there partly lies his own
past deeds, which are directly responsible for many of the events
during his lifespan, be it painful or pleasant. We are what
we are because of our deeds and actions.
One may ask: Why do some sinful
people seem happy and why do some righteous people experience
misery? To understand this, consider the analogy of a large
storage vessel for grains. As long as the sacks of good grains
are emptied in the vessel, there will be no problems. One will
get good grains as one removes them from an outlet at the bottom
of the vessel each day. But, when a sack of bad grains is emptied
into the container, one eventually comes across it after the
layers of good grains have been exhausted. One reaps the benefits
of the layers of past good actions until the bad layers arrive.
So, until then, the person may seem to live in comfort and happiness,
but he has to eventually bear the consequences of his bad actions.
There is no correlation, however, between the order that the
karmas were performed and the order in which one receives the
fruits of those karmas. Thus, although it is possible for one
to receive the fruits of one’s karmas in the order in
which those karmas were performed, as implied in the aforementioned
analogy, this is not always the case. One may receive the fruits
of karmas independent of the order in which the karmas were
Karma is not to be confused as
the giver of the fruits of our actions. In His Vachanãmrut,
Bhagwãn Swãminãrayan says,
as when seeds which are planted in the earth sprout upwards
after coming into contact with rainwater, similarly, during
the period of creation, the jivas which had resided within
mãyã together with their kãran sharir
(causal body), attain various types of bodies according
to their individual karmas by the will of God, the giver
of the fruits of karmas.” (Vartãl 6)
So, in fact, God is the giver of the fruits of our actions.
One might think that God is cruel when He dispenses the
fruits of bad actions. But, God is impartial towards all.
The Brahma Sutras by Ved Vyãs say, “God is
not biased in giving happiness and misery to anyone but
gives the fruits of one’s karmas.” (2-1-34)
Not only does God give the fruits
of one’s karmas, but earning the grace of God or His realized
sãdhu can destroy the harmful karmas of one’s past.
Many stories from our scriptures show this to be true. Bhagwãn
Swãminãrayan also says in the Vachanãmrut
Gadhadã I-58 that if a God-realized Sãdhu becomes
pleased upon a person, then regardless of how malicious his
karmas may be, they are all destroyed. The blessings of that
great sãdhu could make a beggar into a king, could transform
a bad fate into a favorable destiny, and could dissolve even
the most disastrous misfortune.
Accepting and understanding that
our actions have causes and effects stops us from performing
unrighteous actions for which we would have to suffer from the
further accumulation and consequences of harmful karmas.
What is Reincarnation?
Reincarnation is the phenomenon where the immortal soul is continuously
born and reborn in any one of 8,400,000 life-forms until it attains
The ãtmã is characterized by unchanging truth,
consciousness, and bliss. The ãtmã is formless
and has always been bound by a kãran sharir (causal body).
This causal body is not a body in the physical sense. It is
simply an accumulation of the sanskãrs (impressions of
past karmas). The pure ãtmã together with this
kãran sharir is known as the jiva.
Because the jiva is formless in nature, without a physical and
subtle body, it is unable to enjoy or suffer the fruits of its
karmas, nor can it endeavor to attain God. So, out of compassion,
God grants the formless jiva a physical and subtle body according
to its karmas. Then, just as we cast off old clothes for new,
the jiva casts off its old body for a new one – given
to it by God according to its karmas. Hindu scriptures explain
that the jiva attains the bodies of 8.4 million life forms in
rotation and in them, experiences happiness and misery according
to its karmas. It is only possible to attain ultimate liberation
through the human body. In the Vachanãmrut [Bhugol-Khagol],
while explaining the importance of this rare and priceless human
birth, Bhagwan Swaminarayan says,
|A jiva squanders its human
body, which it receives after 35,000,000 prãkrut-pralays
(i.e. 10,886,400,000,000,000,000,000 human years), for the
sake of vain worldly pleasures, and by the refuge of a false
guru. Consequently, it has to suffer the torments of Yam
and the agonies of the pits of narak. Moreover, it receives
another human birth in a place where liberation is attainable
only after passing through the sufferings of the cycle of
8.4 million life forms, i.e. after another 35,000,000 prãkrut-pralays.
This is the interval before one receives a human birth again.
Therefore, O brother, having understood this today, and
having sought the refuge of the Sadguru Sant – the
granter of liberation – and having kept your body,
indriyas and antahkaran in accordance with his wish, strive
for the benefit of your ãtmã and reach the
abode of God. If you do not realise this fact today and
waste this human body, which is instrumental in attaining
liberation, you will have to wait for the aforementioned
time before you receive another chance like this. Only after
such suffering, and only at the end of that interval will
you receive another opportunity to attain liberation, and
that too if you strive for it. If you do not, you will not
attain liberation. This is a fundamental principle. The
wise should ponder over this.
One with exceptionally good karmas,
having attained some form of contact with God or the God-realized
S ãdhu, maybe released from having to undertake birth
within the cycle of 8.4 million life forms. Instead, he would
continue to take human births until, offering devotion to God,
he earns the pleasure of God or the God-realised Sãdhu
and attains moksha.
What is Moksha?
Moksha is ultimate liberation. This is the goal of human life.
Moksha is the liberation of the soul from the cycles of birth
and death; thereafter, it remains eternally in the service of
God in His abode.
Moksha is when the causal body is destroyed and the pure ãtmã
achieves everlasting bliss in the worship of God. The word causal
body implies that it is the cause of the jiva having to undertake
a physical body and bear out its destiny in accordance to its
karmas. It is only through the grace of God or the God-enlightened
Sãdhu (guru) that one’s kãran sharir is
dissolved and moksha is achieved. Penance, austerities, yoga,
yagnas (ceremonial sacrifices), donations, and other pious actions
do not directly give moksha. The fruit of doing these pious
deeds is the contact and association with God and the God-enlightened
S ãdhu. Once such association with God and the God-enlightened
Sãdhu has been achieved, understanding their true form,
following their commands, and imbibing dharma, gnãn,
vairãgya, and bhakti earns the jiva their grace
and thus ultimate moksha.
When an ãtmã achieves moksha,
God grants it a divine body. With this divine body it resides
in the abode of God with infinite other liberated souls. Here
it enjoys everlasting bliss in worshipping God. The happiness
from infinite universes put together pales into insignificance
in front of the bliss of God experienced by these liberated
souls. In His divine abode, God grants the ãtmã
powers and a form that is similar to His own. Yet, the ãtmã
is distinct from God and forever retains a relationship of servitude
towards God. In fact, such powers bear no attraction to these
liberated souls because their experience of worshipping God
brings infinite times more bliss than the exercise of any powers.
Why are there
so many Gods in Hinduism?
A. Summary Answer:
Hinduism is not a polytheistic religion. For all Hindus, there
is only one Supreme God.
The ancient seers of India recognized that all of God’s
creation does not just center around man, but that man shares
the universe with numerous life forms. Some life forms have less
powers and abilities than humans while others have more. God grants
some of these various higher beings cosmic powers and assigns
them the responsibilities of running the “machinery of the
universe.” These higher beings are also known as devtãs,
devãs or gods. While Hindus respect these gods to be higher
than humans, and even propitiate them in times of need, Hindus
also readily acknowledge that these gods are clearly subservient
to and have their origin and sustenance in one Supreme God. Hindus
are thus monotheists, worshippers of one Supreme God, in every
sense of the word.
Historically, many groups have been
unwilling or unable to understand the true position and function
of the various gods within Hinduism. Consequently, out of misunderstanding
or prejudice, they have incorrectly labeled Hinduism as polytheistic
in the sense of the ancient Roman or Greek pantheon. However,
this is incorrect. Just as other religions consider themselves
monotheistic while still accepting the existence of “angels”
and other superhuman divinities, Hinduism should be considered
monotheistic in the same sense.