Hinduism is usually considered a religion like Islam and Christianity. While Hinduism remains one of the earliest religious philosophies of mankind, it is not exactly a religion given by a messiah. It is a human philosophy for life and its conduct that evolved with a lot of thought and debate, often with multiple schools of views and opinions. Its origin and evolution are a testimony to its scientific temperament usually missing in religions.
HINDUISM, as you may be aware, is a misnomer. In Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, from which all Indian languages and dialects have arisen, there is a word, 'Sindhu' meaning river. Since in ancient times, all concentrations of human civilizations were around major rivers, those lands were called 'lands of Sindhu' or 'lands of rivers'. Trading foreigners called those lands 'Hindu' or 'Hind', which came to be called 'India' by Britishers, and after colonization it became the name by which world addressed this country.
The same thing happened with religion. The ancient Indian religious philosophy is not a 'religion' in the sense Islam and Christianity are. It is more a sort of philosophy. It was and is called 'Sanatana Dharma', or 'eternal duty', and revolves around the simple question as to what should be the duty of a person in his or her different capacities. So the duty of a soldier will be different from those of a singer, and the duties of a person as a father different as a son.
Even though the exact historical dates of its evolution are not known, there is enough evidence to suggest that Indian civilization is one of the oldest human civilizations in the world. As per available scientific evidence experts have come to a conclusion that humans, believed to have originated somewhere in Africa, migrated next to Indian region around 85000 years ago. Not much is known about the ancient human dwellings. The earliest archaeological artefacts of human civilization relate to about 7000 years ago. However, it is neither possible to say conclusively that Indian civilization did not exist prior to that, nor can one assign any specific dates with certainty. Thus, on the basis of available evidence, one can only say that Indian civilization existed around 6000 years ago.
In ancient India, religion was understood as code of conduct, and even though various schools of religious philosophies existed in the form of multiple sects, they were not considered as different religions. In Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language (and perhaps the oldest of the Indo-European languages surviving today), the word that is equivalent to religion is DHARMA, meaning ‘duty’. Since the concept of duty applied to every human being, it was called SANATANA DHARMA, meaning ‘eternal duty.’
Thus, in ancient India, religion was just a matter of social values, not a divine diktat. Thus, religion in India has always been far more tolerant and less fanatic than anywhere else in the world during the pre-modern times.
The concept of God in this philosophy is also a result of the understanding and analysis of the many great philosophers of those times, and is thus more an indication and admission of ignorance rather than an assertion of superiority. Another important aspect of this philosophy is the fact that there are different schools of philosophical thoughts all of which are equally revered and respected, even though one of them may be more accepted than the other. Some of them are exactly opposite, and yet respected - a tolerance that was often absent even in the field of scientific thought till the last century.
One school of philosophy considers God as omnipresent, and a part of everything. Thus the God as a creator is not different from its creation. In this philosophy (Advaitavad), the universe is a part of God, and so is everything that exists, though each of these things and beings is not god. Then every human soul (atma) has a temporary existence, and its ultimate fate is to get united with the rest, i.e. god (parmatma), a process called 'moksha' or 'nirvana'.
There is another somewhat different school of thought (Vishishta Advaitavad)in which the creator is separate from the creation, but becomes one after nirvana.
However, before we go any further, it is also necessary to understand such complicated philosophy of god was not always understood by the common folk. In fact, the rishis and munis (thinkers) elaborated three ways in which a person should approach God. The path of devotion (bhakti), the path of action and duty (karma), and the path of knowledge (Gyan).
The first is the 'path of devotion' (Bhakti) - in which a person devotes whole of its existence and possession to the love of God, therein immersing his complete ego and existence. In the process he frees himself from all worldly attachments and greed, and attains a detached state where he is no more affected by the material pursuits and wealth. This is the path in which one needs to focus on God alone, and to be able to do that, one needs to imagine or perceive God in a certain form. The devotees follow two different methods for this purpose. One is to focus on God without any form (nirakar bhakti) - where the God is perceived like all pervading, all powerful and omnipotent entity. The other is to worship God in a perceivable human like form (sakar bhakti)- this is a method that became more and more popular over the centuries because of the ease with which the worshiped entity could be shared and discussed together by a large mass of mankind.
In different times, and different places, God began to be worshiped in different forms, amidst the realization that it is only the form that is changing, the essence remains the same. So even though the God is the same, he is known and called by many names, worshiped in many forms, and depicted as different entities.
The 'dharma' includes the philosophy that the God will and does come to mankind in times of need, by taking the human form. So arose the concept of "incarnation", where the Lord himself took birth as a human, lived the whole life like any other human, just to follow the rules he has set for himself, and during his lifetime did whatever was required to let the good defeat the evil, and to ensure that truth and fairness prevails. Thus in Hinduism, God is worshiped in many human forms, in which he is believed to have taken incarnations.
A unique thing about God in Hinduism, even in perceived human forms, is that it is gender neutral. The male and female are supposed to be complimentary halves, and both are worshiped.
For a civilization that has been there for a few thousand years now, the concept of God is as deep and interlinked with philosophies, myth and legends, as one would expect it to be.
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