‘Hindu’ is the Persian name for India (Persia and India are next door to each other and have traded for thousands of years). Our society borrows the term from the British, who get the term from the Persians. As we read in the Vedas, Hinduism brought together many traditions from many regions with many gods, but there are three levels that are equally interchangeable and separable. First, each can have a particular god that is the emphasis of one’s particular branch of the tradition. Second, the many gods are each one aspect of a single god, often the great father and creator, named by most traditions Brahma. Third, there is a philosophical monism that goes beyond god or not god, living or dead, conscious or unconscious, that is the One. Locals practicing devotional worship often operate on the first level, priests who study the Vedas often operate on the second level, while philosophers and unorthodox Indian schools that do not accept the authority of the Vedas such as Jains, Buddhists and the materialist Charvakas operate on the third.
As Hinduism was brought together as a tradition that brought together many separate people with separate traditions, first the Vedas spoke largely though not entirely on the first level, then particular passages of the Vedas and the later Upanishads spoke on the second level, and then many schools went beyond the Upanishads and understood a simple, neither theistic nor atheistic One to be the real underlying truth of the first and second levels. Vedanta, literally “Veda’s End”, debated back and forth between the second and third levels in the tradition of the Upanishads.
This came together over many periods in the history of Indian thought. About 2000 BCE, India was invaded by a fire worshiping people who likely came from modern day Iran. While European scholars previously argued that this was the spark of civilization migrating to India, we know today that the area was already well developed at the time, with great buildings and impressive public baths with plumbing.
Although the area was already developed, the fire worshiping Aryans were a big influence on the Vedas and ancient Indian culture, but scholars are critical of just how influential as it was said only recently that the Aryans civilized India and brought the Vedas with them. While the Vedas may have been strongly influenced by the Aryans, it is debatable how much is composed of earlier native Indian pre-Aryan traditions. The Nazis, following earlier German historians, believed that the Aryans were Germanic tribes who civilized not only India but Egypt, Greece, and Persia. The swastika, and Indian name for a symbol that can be found in much of the world, including tribal German lands, was thought to be the sun symbol of the Aryans, and so it was used by the Nazis. Unfortunately for this Germanic theory of history, we know that the Aryans were indeed from modern day Iran, what became Persia very soon after the Aryan conquests in India.
Next, in the Vedic period, 1500-800 BCE, the four Vedas were composed as oral traditions that eventually were written down in texts, including the foremost Rg Veda of which there are selections in your reader. The golden age of Indian thought followed from 800-200 BCE, the time when the Upanishads distilled the Vedic hymns to the gods into inner philosophical and psychological teachings, the six orthodox schools that follow the Vedas (Vedanta, Yoga, Mimamsa, Samkhya, Nyaya and Vaisheshika) as well as the unorthodox schools (Charvaka, Jainism and Buddhism) flourished, and the great Hindu epics (the Mahabharata and Ramayana) were written. After this, from 200 BCE – 500 CE is a period when the schools and traditions of the golden age were systematized into sutras or central texts. Finally, after 500 CE and up to the present time, is the period of commentaries written on the earlier systems and their sutras. This persisted through the period of conquest by Muslims of North India in the 1500s and then by the British in the 1800s.
The Three Paths
There are three paths of worship in Hinduism. First, there is devotional worship, known as Bhakti yoga (‘yoga’ means ‘discipline’, or practice). In Bhakti devotional worship, the devotee prays, sings hymns, lights incense, and performs rituals to gain favor with the gods and heavens. It is impossible not to notice that most of what we call ‘religion’ the world over is in fact forms of Bhakti practice, devotion to particular gods and ancestral spirits. The two most populous forms of Bhakti Hinduism are Shaivism, the worship of Shiva (the transformer and destroyer) and his incarnations such as Ganesh (the elephant headed god), and Vaishnavism, the worship of Vishnu (the savior or preserver) and his incarnations such as Krishna. Worship is often called ‘darshana’, or seeing/experiencing, and Hindus will say, I am going to the seeing, meaning I am going to see and be seen by the god. Another common form of Bhakti devotion is worship of a particular goddess such as Kali. Notice that, like a scientist, Bhakti practitioners also believe in learning by experience and seeing, but their subject matter is quite different.
Raja yoga, the second path, is worship by meditation and asceticism (living in isolation, standing in place for days, fasting chanting the names of gods for hours, sitting on spikes, and other means of hard activity) meant to gain a meditative state of insight. Raja means ‘force’ or ‘effort’, and India is famous for its forest sages practicing these techniques. As we will study soon, the Jains and later Buddhists became famous for their practices of discipline, training both the body and the mind. Jains would sometimes stand in the jungle for such long periods of time that vines would grow up their bodies, as depicted in some of their venerated images.
Jnana yoga (“zshna-na”), the third path and my personal favorite, is worship by acquiring knowledge, wisdom and understanding the order of things through study and philosophizing. This class itself could be seen as a form of Jnana yoga, designed to bring you closer to the core by studying the ways of the world. All three paths, or any mixture of the three, are understood to work towards the same goal: liberation from the bonds of attachment and desire, rising into enlightenment and release from the constraints of identity to join together with the whole.
There are two ultimate goals to this process. First, there is hope for a better next life. Many are familiar already with the Hindu idea of reincarnation. This is not a form of afterlife particular to India, but in fact there is evidence that many tribal cultures and early Egypt believed that one’s present life will be reincarnated in another life on earth based on one’s actions and intentions. This interconnection is called karma, which simply means ‘action’ in Sanskrit. Interestingly, physical causation is karma, just as it is also metaphysical causation (next life physics), an understanding of cause and effect applied to a different sphere of existence. If you punch someone in the head, it is karma that makes their head reel backward, and karma that also weighs down your chance for a favorable life after death in the Hindu tradition such that if you punch too many people, you get reborn a cockroach.
Second, there is hope for release, for freedom from rounds of rebirth on earth. This can be thought of as dwelling in a heaven with one’s personal or family god, but also as a dwelling with the order of things without residing in any particular place. Bhakti yoga tends to favor the dwelling with a lord, while raja and jnana tends to favor the dwelling with the universe as a whole, however it is important to remember that some Hindus believe that both amount to the same exact thing (while others will insist that their school’s truth is ‘more true’, the same variation one finds in any religion and in our own culture). This release is also called Moksha and Samadhi, but in America we know this first and foremost by the same name as the famous grunge band, Nirvana.
While moksha is the ultimate goal, via the more immediate goal of positioning oneself favorably for moksha either in this life (dwelling in the forest or a monastery) or in a next life, there are three other goals that Indian philosophy points to as desirable making four in total. In addition to moksha/nirvana, there is law or morality, ‘dharma’ (the term Jains and Buddhists use to describe their traditions and rules), pleasure, ‘kama’ (as from the Kama Sutra), and material well-being or comfort, ‘artha’. Clearly, the overall idea is that pleasure and comfort (kama and artha) are not in themselves evil, but one should pursue liberation through discipline (moksha through dharma), first and foremost. Buddhists symbolize dharma with a wheel, one of the earliest images of Buddhism found. Just like early Christians identified with the symbol of the fish before depicting Jesus, Buddhists identified with the wheel before depicting the Buddha.
Ancient India saw a great deal of development in science and technology. They observed the natural world and put phenomena into families and categories as did the ancient Greeks and as we still do today. The Romans would trade Germanic and Celtic slaves to India in exchange for Indian wootz, the metal most prized for weapons in the ancient world.
In mathematics the Indians were unsurpassed by ancient civilizations, developing the base ten system and the Indian-Arabic numerals we use today. They laid down the basics of symbolic equations, the concept and symbolization of zero, and invented the variable (originally a thick dot). All of this got picked up by the Muslims, who turned it into algebra, which then got picked up by the Europeans, who turned it into Calculus. Typically, we learn about Euclid and the Greeks doing geometry as the source of the Western mathematical tradition. Muslims were influenced by the Greeks and Euclid, but Euclid argued about lines drawn in sand and did not use equations. It was the Indians who invented the sorts of mathematical symbolism that the Muslims turned into step by step symbolic mathematics as we know it today and teach it up through high school.
In spite of all of these developments, Indian thought is typically anti-materialistic and concerned with spirituality or psychology depending on one’s vocabulary. Knowing the mind/spirit is knowing the essence of the whole as self-knowledge, or ‘atmavidya’. Hindus believe that one has an eternal self/soul/mind, the ‘atma’, as opposed to Jains and Buddhists who believe in ‘anatma’, or no-self (permanent self, anyway).
It used to be the opinion not only of most Hindus but also European scholarship until very recently, that Jainism and Buddhism took parts of Hinduism and broke away to form their own traditions. Recently, new studies have shown that Jainism and Buddhism were forming at the same time as Hinduism was becoming an official tradition. The Hindus accepted the Vedas and Upanishads while the Jains and Buddhists broke from the Vedas to follow more Upanishad-like understandings, but Hinduism as a centralized tradition was, in part, a reaction to the development of the Jain and Buddhist traditions. Thus, similar doctrines of reincarnation and psychological skepticism/idealism may have developed at the same time or been borrowed by Hinduism in its fully developed form rather than borrowed from Hinduism as it was previously thought. Even so, there is some truth to the common Hindu understanding that “Buddhism is Hinduism for export”, as Buddhists took the ideas in the Upanishads and Indian tradition, removed the dietary restrictions, caste system and other traditional purity laws, and became possibly the world’s largest system of thought in history, although it is debatable whether Christianity or Buddhism has that title.