Monday, September 30, 2013

Hinduism 101 for Atheists: Part 1

Om Sahana Vavatu Sahanau Bhunaktu. Sahaveeryam Karavavahai. Tejas Vinavati Tamastuma Vidhwishavahai . Om Shanti Shanti Shantihi. May He protect both of us. May He nourish both of us. May we both. acquire the capacity (to study and understand).  May our study be brilliant. May we not argue with each other. Om peace, peace, peace. 

God in Hinduism is not a grumpy old man with a white beard living on the clouds who controls your life and the universe as he pleases. Confusing the word God as used in the Old Testament with the Vedic concept of Brahman in Hinduism by early European translators is one of the biggest reasons for misunderstanding Hinduism, its Gods and Goddesses and its living incarnations. In the rest of the article, for the sake of simplicity, I am talking about mainstream Hinduism as it exists today rather than the hundreds if not thousands of schools of thought that really make up the collective of Hindu network of religions.

Confusing the word God as used in the Old Testament with the Vedic concept of Brahman in Hinduism by early European translators is one of the biggest reasons for misunderstanding Hinduism.
Though Hinduism worships God in a number of forms - and ultimately in every life form and in every part of creation - Brahman fundamentally is nameless and formless. It is pure consciousness and bliss. Experiencing this consciousness - and hence your permanence - is the goal of life as per Hinduism. The basic statement Hinduism makes is that consciousness pre-dates matter. However, consciousness can associate itself with matter - appearing to but ultimately not really being bound to it. This is why Hinduism is not at odds with evolution - like some atheists continuously assume and challenge. The body itself might evolve in whatever way, but the consciousness that chooses to work through the body is the one that gives it it's life, intelligence, intuition, creativity and so on to the extent that the biology of the body permits its expression.

 We'll come to the proof or the basis of all this later on.. But at-least if you are questioning or making fun of a religion, please make fun of the right religion. Most of the atheists'  problems with religion are related to Christian and Islamic concepts and theories.. and or about caste-ism and denigration of women which are problem that span all religions in India and in fact in different forms - subtle (if you identify with that culture) or not so subtle (if you are looking at it as an outsider) - in all cultures around the world. I could spend the next many years posting Stalin/Lenin jokes because communists are also atheists. But it wouldn't be quite helpful.. or even funny after a point.

Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism - One God? No God? Same God? Many Gods?

Coming back to Hinduism, the various forms of Gods Hindus worship are symbolic representations of energies and qualities that help you move towards a better experience of life and eventually move towards the experience of Brahman. Some of these Gods might have been real individuals who expressed those qualities at the time they lived and have hence come to be known for it.. For instance, talking very hypothetically, Gandhi might at some point be worshiped as a God representing the principle of non-violence. None of these individual attributes are absolute in all circumstances though - and that is why there are so many stories that show people the limitations as well as the value of each of these Gods. For instance, there is a story of Brahma (the God of creation.. not Brahman the pure consciousness) and Vishnu trying to reach Shiva's head and feet respectively and failing. The story is symbolic of explaining how you cannot reach the state of pure consciousness merely through material wealth (Vishnu) or the intellect (Brahma). It does not mean the Gods are fighting in a petty way as people assume. Lakshmi represents the concept of wealth as an overflowing abundant flow while Kubera represents wealth as static accumulation of material. Shiva amongst other things represents the concept of causeless auspiciousness - the understanding that life is complete and perfect. And so on.
Worshiping is not the same as prayer. Worshiping is enabling your own self to express the energy represented by the form. You are the God who answers your prayers.
Hindus worship these forms because worshiping (wrongly translated as prayer) is a very powerful method of imbibing the energy (or the concept) represented by that God. It is a very easy yet very effective way to program your subconscious because the subconscious reacts to the human form much more easily that when imbibing an abstract concept. This is why, for instance, the currency bills carry the face of a person. People are found to be many times more likely to detect counterfeiting with faces than with any other generic picture. 

The various aspects of the Gods such as  their many hands, the weapons they carry, Ganesha's elephant face etc symbolize different powers and abilities once can acquire. They have been designed in such as way that meditation on the form of the God - even without intellectually understanding each symbolism - helps you imbibe the concept behind it very deeply.  For instance, while one can explain the principle of feminine energy and power over a 6 week course to someone, just looking at the form of Goddess Durga gives them that experience. 

Puranas: wrongly translated as Mythology

The stories of the Gods and Goddesses are not allegorical or imaginary like the western mythologies. They are poetical representations of history. The Hindu seers recognized that the Universe operated on patterns that repeat at every scale. For instance the concept of creation, destruction and sustenance are applicable to the constructs of the mind, our bodies, and to the external universe at large. It also applies to social structures and families and so on. So typically the historic stories of Hindu puranas (wrongly translated as mythology) also represent some of the constructs or patterns of the philosophy.

Sometimes they are modified to more clearly represent a concept. For instance if you go through these talks you will see the symbolism behind the Mahabharata war ( or Ramayana as seen from the point of view of the journey towards enlightenment. But that itself does not mean that the stories are completely from someone's imagination to represent the concepts. The more likely scenario is that they are historic. But maybe a little embellished or made more poetic in parts. The trick is to recognize which is which. But unfortunately that requires a little bit of patience and some familiarity with the fundamental philosophy.  Many things that people assume to be exaggerations are actually factual. 

 The Spiritual vs The Material 

But beyond form worship through forms, Hinduism has this core part which is spirituality. Spirituality is fundamentally based on the thesis that human beings can directly experience this Brahman or pure consciousness inside them - and if I can just get a little ahead of myself - AS them. (There are different schools that talk about how close you can get.. but for the sake of this introduction those are advanced topics that we can defer). Moving towards experiencing the conscious part of you - as opposed to the programmed mechanical structures  of YOU - the body and the brain - is the goal of Hinduism. 

The side effects of becoming more conscious are, among other things, creativity and intuition since you can find breakthroughs beyond simple logical extensions to existing thought. And this does not refer to being creative just to find new scientific discoveries. It can be a part of finding ways to resolve day to day conflicts or problems in your family, or society or your company. So basically the spiritual path, Hinduism believes, is not at odds with any other so called material way of life. The stress is on the space from which one operates - whether it is bound by the past emotional traumas and incomplete cognition.. or whether it comes from a space of consciousness and free will. There are some traditions that use austerity (which is not poverty) as a way to stay conscious - but living in poverty is never the ideal life that Hinduism promotes.

Hinduism does not distinguish the spiritual from the material. However it does have a concept of dharma.  

Dharma is not morality

Anything that moves you towards experiencing more and more consciousness is dharmic (wrongly translated as Good). This can be different for different people based on where they are in evolution. For instance, for a person A, learning to be truthful can make him more conscious because lying has become a pattern in him. For another B saying the truth might have become a compulsive behavior and hence breaking that pattern is dharmic. This is one of the reasons why dharma in Hinduism is not so easy to define and causes conflicts both internally and outside. The idea of dharma is very closely related to each individual's path towards becoming more conscious and may differ from someone else's ideas.  For the mathematically inclined you can approximately think of morality as a absolute position and dharma as a first or second order derivative. So whether you are moving in the right direction towards your innate nature is more important than where you are.

 The western civilizations whose rules of right and wrong are based on social good define it in absolute terms. Hinduism also recognizes actions that need to be done for social stability. And it also recognizes deep patterns - collective delusions - that are common across people in a particular society. For instance say the idea of money.. or fear of the sky falling on the head and so on. And these may provide the basis for dharmic rules that apply to a large part of a specific society. But these rules change over time (or yuga to yuga) based on the mental constitution of society at that point. More on that later when we talk of incarnations.

But ultimately the concept of dharma is personal in Hinduism.  Hinduism really does not preach morality and Dharma is not morality. 

Shraddha vs Faith

The Hindu word Shraddha does not mean faith. Hinduism does not require one to have faith blindly. But.. it does require one to have Shraddha. Shraddha is the stability to try something authentically. To give an analogy, when someone says that there is a bus that goes to Mysore that stops every hour a few streets away. Shraddha is making the best effort to get out of bed, go there, wait for the maximum of an hour and take the bus. But when you do all this, if you do not find a bus, then it is not required of you to imagine a bus standing there. 

Now the question most people have is that they do not trust enough to even try what is said. Maybe in the past they have been cheated .. or they have not tried authentically and hence not seen the results. And this has happened many times. But moving ahead even in this situation by not giving up on yourself and others is Shraddha. Note that this is not specific to spirituality alone. The concept of Shraddha applies to any endeavor that your take up. For, the opposite of success is not failure. The opposite of success is giving up. Shraddha is the principle of not-giving-up..

 Coming up next..

Part 2
  • The Role of a Guru - or enlightened master - Precise solutions vs All Encompassing Answers
  • Who is an Incarnation or an Avatar. What are Yugas
  • Miracles

Part 3
  • Hinduism and Society 
  • Sati, Child Marriage, Caste System, Status of Women etc
  • Festivals and Celebrations
  • Role of Rituals, Homas
Part 4
  • Evolution of Hinduism - Why no wars have been fought to spread Hinduism
  • Death and Reincarnation and Karma
  • Swarga amd Naraga (Heaven and Hell) are Psychological not Geographical
  • The Origins - How did it all begin? aka Theology - And why it possibly matters least.

From the teachings of Avatar Paramahamsa Nithyananda.


  1. //Brahman fundamentally is nameless and formless. It is pure consciousness and bliss//

    You are wrong. It is also Eternal. What is the form of Brahman you are talking about?