FAQ on Hinduism
1. What is Hinduism?
2. Who is a Hindu?
3. What is unique about the Indian Calendar?
4. What are the seasons of the Indian Calendar?
5. What is Ahinsã?
6. How does the practice of self-defense fit into the concept of Ahinsã?
7. What is the Ãtmã?
8. What is Karma?
9. What is Reincarnation?
10.What is Moksha?
11.Why are there so many Gods in Hinduism?
|Q.1 What is Hinduism? |
A. 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.
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 wishes
(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, or son.
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.
|Q.2 Who is a Hindu?|
A. 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.
|Q.3 What is unique about the Indian Calendar?|
A. The 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 of February.
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.
|Q.4 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 is Ahinsã?|
A. 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:
thought - 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:
“All scriptures advocate Ahinsã as the highest dharma.”(Verse 12)
“My devotees should not harm any living being. They should not intentionally harm even small insects.” (Verse 11)
“Even for performing yagnas (ceremonial and divine sacrifices) to please deities or ancestors, no harm should be inflicted on any living being.” (Verse 12)
“Even for acquiring women, wealth or a kingdom, one should never, in any way, harm or kill any person.” (Verse 155)
Vegetarianism: An Application of Ahinsã
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.
|Q.6 How does the practice of self-defense fit into the concept of Ahinsã? |
A. 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.
|Q.7 What is the Ãtmã?|
A. 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.
|Q.8 What is Karma?|
A. 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, and kriyamãn.
Sanchit karmas – the stock of karmas, or accumulation of past good and bad actions.
Prãrabdha 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.
Kriyamãn 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 performed.
Karma is not to be confused as the giver of the fruits of our actions. In His Vachanãmrut, Bhagwãn Swãminãrayan says,
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.
|Q.9 What is Reincarnation?|
A. 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 moksha.
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. 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.
|Q10 What is Moksha?|
A. 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.
|Q.11 Why are there so many Gods in Hinduism?|
A. 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.