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What is Religion?
Religion in many areas and aspects is probably a topic as commonly discussed as weather is, on a global scale. Regardless of where a person may live, the culture they are in will discuss it and ultimately be influenced by it. Within these cultures are families with their own religious history, which very well might be the main contributor of religious continuity. “For it is evident that in some ninety-nine per cent of cases the religion which an individual professes and to which he or she adheres depends upon the accidents of birth.” A person born in India, who has parents that are Hindu, along with a large majority of the population, is more than likely to become or remain a Hindu. That can be similar in a matter of many different situations, be it through Buddhism, Christianity, and so on, but likely most prevalent in Hinduism. People have a history of following their parents and societies ideals.
Within the wide dimensions of religion there are specific and important aspects for each individual who chooses their own institution and tradition. Those individuals are influenced by many factors that fall within their surrounding life. Along with family there are other influences which can include friends, culture, society, fads, spouses, etc. But what is probably the most significant other than family, is the common desire or acceptance of trying to understand the ultimate questions (or mysteries) of life.
Like many great questions there includes a complexity to answering the essence of the question. The question “what is religion?” is by no means easy to decipher. It can take on meaning and significance differently for each individual. He, who proclaims a faith, defines religion presumably far differently, than he who is dissatisfied with religion. Internally, each individual may derive motive, passion, desire, commitment or a sense of duty towards one’s chosen belief. Even within those impulses, there are different perspectives for why a person becomes religious. With religion being such a diverse and complicated issue it tends to be interpreted and approached on many different levels. Consequently it is difficult to completely define religion from one perspective. It would be easier to describe or characterize some of its history and practices, and why they are relevant. Hinduism has a diverse background and has been philosophized in many and numerous ways, through those many point of views it can further be described infinitely.
Hinduism in itself is a vast denomination especially for a religion that pretty much confines itself within India. This religious institution, by shear numbers and diversity of the communities, varies with the beliefs and practices of each individual, who will profess to be Hindu. In fact the term “Hinduism”, originated in the west, and is not the name of one whole tradition. Instead it is a diverse group of Indian religions that collectively have a respect for the early Vedic scriptures. Like many religions, Hinduism has a rich and profound history. It has progressed over approximately four to five thousand years (some authorities say longer), and again like many religions has gone through numerous changes, traditionally, philosophically, ritually and so forth. This religion is so old and diverse that it is often misunderstood and easily confused. “Of Hinduism, for example, it has been often and truly said that nothing can be asserted about it that cannot also be denied.” With numerous traditions and characterizations it is hard to specifically pin point all the correct objectives of the religion.
A great deal of Hinduism’s philosophies, traditions and rituals has evolved from the first of the recorded Hindu scriptures, the Vedas. The Vedas are four books; the Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and the Atharvaveda. These collections contain rituals, hymns, sacrificial formulas, spells and incarnations. The practices from these scriptures had been the basis for the believers to communicate to the many deities of the faith. These are personalized conceptions of powers that control the natural forces around them. These “gods” are a way for the followers to feel personally attached to the outcomes of their lives, it gives a sense of praise and blame for their actions.
The gods were supernatural beings that would represent a natural force within the daily life of India’s people. Much of what happened, as far as weather and fate be concerned, would tell the people how the gods are feeling. If there were a drought, or flood, or a storm, then the gods would be angry and take their displeasure out on the people. If the people were abiding to the rules and praising the gods than the followers would be rewarded. This simple way of explaining the causes of day to day events, may give comfort to Hindus, and therefore religion may simply be those explanations. Or rather, religion from a Hindu perspective, may be the humanity’s bondage to the whims of their gods.
Early Hinduism accepted four basic needs of life. They were pleasure, wealth, ethical duties and liberation. The first two of these were known as a path of desire, and though not criticized, it was recognized in the communities that it was not the right path for true growth. Ethical duties and liberation were the means for spiritual progression. With these in mind, Hindus were recommended a few different paths to reach the ultimate goal of bliss. Maybe for some Hindus, religion is a way of attaining bliss.
Other texts, called the Brahmanas, were a rejuvenation of the significance of the Vedas. Included in it was one of the paths called Karma Marga, the Path of Works, which was a basis for one to perform duties, rites and ceremonies (actions) to increase one’s worth. In order to follow this path correctly, there were certain activities required. They were to owe sacrifices to the many deities, needed to study the Vedas, to have offspring, to be respectful to their fellow man and to have high ethical values. These activities may define religion for Hindus.
Probably the most important early practice that comes from the Vedas is worshiping by sacrifice to the gods. This was the most common ritual (activity) of the Vedic religion and early on, they had many different uses for it. This was to give pleasure to the god that they were praising and through it, hope of attaining their endowments. The priests of the community, who were known as Brahmins, performed the sacrifices. Only they could properly offer the right way to praise the gods through the hymns of the Rigveda. The hymns symbolized a magic power through the fire they used to sacrifice. Again like the personalization of the gods these were actions that they could see and feel and were able to grasp. They did not have to interact with the gods directly and the physical sacrifices may have been easier to relate to than the immaterial concepts of blessings and gods. This conceptualizes the necessity for a visual attachment for the believers wants and needs. Another way of defining religion could be through these ceremonies. . Religion could simply be the work of priests, or these acts of ritual themselves.
Other important rituals can still be found today. The samskaras, which are specific times in the progression of daily life, are significant, because of the ceremonies surrounding them. These included birth, marriage and death and were wishes of luck to protect these occasions for the future. Ceremonies are used to bless these important occasions. Another ritual is the sandhyas, a form of meditation for the praise of the sun, at dawn, noon and dusk. These are performed with a ceremonial offering of water to the sun. This symbolizes the importance of both the sun and the water and when praising the sun signifies thanks for it. Another ritual, puja, was gaining respect during this time. It used images of statues to worship deities, but was to be even more important later on.
These rituals might be said to make up part of the religious experience for Hindus.
Later texts called the Dharmasutras became very important. These texts were based on the idea of Dharma, which is a sense of justice, duties, and virtues for the believers. They included the Laws of Manu; these scriptures helped evolve new ideas of conformity and a code of ethics within the society. It included new rules, philosophies and practices for the followers. There was the ten-fold law for all within the caste and stages of life, they were self-control, forgiveness, to not steal, purification, wisdom, knowledge, truthfulness, contentment, control of the organs and to not get angry. Another such philosophy was the notion of Karma, this was the actions the followers were participating in and it would stand for what the person had done in the past and how it will shape what they shall become in the future. The actions, sacrifices, and keeping within the laws were believed to bear higher spiritual results. These actions were based on whether the person will continue in the cycle of rebirth, referred to as Samsara. This reincarnation could either be a progression towards inner peace or could be degradation to a lower or stagnant class (caste). This could be interpreted as a second chance. Moksha was another goal to help form a release from one’s past Karma; it is a state of detachment from one’s unruly past deeds. By having these rules of moral conduct, there is more of a significant outcome if they are not followed; this could include a lower caste rebirth. Displeasing a higher authority such as these deities can have a very influential and lasting effect. To have control of a group or a society, rules need to be set out and therefore religious beliefs can play a large factor in incorporating these rules. With these laws, duties and virtues, religion becomes a means for the society to help control failure and injustice.
What was adopted from the Laws of Manu was a society that segregated, known as Varna (the caste system), a foundation for separating people according to class. The highest class, the Brahmins, was the priests that embody the goal of the Hindus. Next came the Kshatriyas (rulers, kings and warriors), then the Vaisyas (common people) and last was the Shudras (servants), who had very little spiritual or social rights. They were severely looked down upon by the three higher classes and the only hope of gaining status was by rebirth, if they were lucky. This hierarchy is an example of the process this culture and its higher classes had conveniently adopted for themselves. These religious believers had selectively and discriminately attained respect through influence and a passing of those generations that were held in high esteem. Generally, the higher classes were better educated. This originally was very important because the higher classes were able to read and interpret the scriptures and doctrines. This contributed to the on going segregation of the classes and was almost a reassurance for the higher classes offspring. Within the different communities it could seem that the most influential were viewed the most spiritual, or vice versa, this is that encompassing influence of religion in this culture.
The first three classes are able to transform their spiritual progression in a matter of stages known as asrama, towards Brahman. The first stage of the spiritual career is that of being a young boy and a student of the Hindu scriptures, by having a teacher (guru) to teach those scriptures, and to learn the fundamentals of reaching inner peace. The next stage is that which is part of the path of action that is relative to the householder. They should marry, have sons and earn a living, continue to try to lead an exemplary life, while performing the prescribed rituals and carrying out the responsibilities within the caste system (Karma). When a man grows old it is thought that he should leave his home and dwell in the forests or a secluded area, where he will gradually renew his spiritual progressions taught from when he was a boy and devote his life to moksha (liberation from samsara). He was also to continue or practice the right actions (Karma) called upon him, like all within the Varna. The idea of Karma states that those who act well in this life may be born in better circumstances or a higher caste next time, and those who did not fulfill their duties may be born in worst circumstances or a lower caste. Once he is ready to completely devote all time to attain liberation, he is ready to enter the final stage, renounce the world, and to attain final liberation is the goal of the sannyasi (the final stage). Asceticism (self-deprivation) and meditation is a means for the sannyasi (holy man) to reach peace of mind and harmony with the world. They then come to Moksha (liberation), completely detached from “the transitory world of the self.” When Moksha is achieved, there is a final release from the cycle of Samsara, the confinement of Karma, and from the communities caste system, after which pursue of the ultimate reality is sought by the sannyasi. This ultimate reality is the sacred knowledge known as Brahman. This is the Hindus perspective for the answer to the universal question of what is the meaning of life.
During the time of the construction of the caste system came some new scriptures, called the Upanishads. The philosophy of reaching liberation (Brahman) through meditation and through the seeking of an all-encompassing knowledge was the main concept of these texts and from this period. Also this was known as Jnana-Marga, the Path of Knowledge. It was cultivated from the assistance of reflecting on the stages of life; this was a sense of progression of the spirit (atman) towards the Ultimate Reality (Brahman). Spiritual and societal development is what is key to attaining the highest of India’s societal ideals. With transition, rituals and concepts changed and eventually led to the shift of significance for the Brahmins. The Brahmins were originally the experts of the rituals, but soon adopted a higher influence in the societal laws and moral teachings of the communities. The priests were thought of as all important and that the essence of what they stood for, by giving praise and worship was what was felt needed to try to be attained by all. “Naturally, only those who are of a philosophical temperament can develop a keen power of reasoning by which they can distinguish the real from the unreal, the changing from the changeless. These aspirants must cultivate such disciplines as control over the mind and the senses, which lead to inner calm, forbearance and concentration. By reasoning and uninterrupted contemplation, their ignorance gives way to the realization that the entire universe and all beings are one and the same Brahman. But to reach this ultimate realization requires long preparation and self-discipline.” Unfortunately the less philosophical hope to attain this knowledge in a later life through the cycle of rebirth. Religion becomes a way for this culture to say who is just and who is unjust.
Hinduism eventually becomes a means for the Indian people to transform the individual inner self, which is known as “atman”, from the selfishness and ignorance of the ego. Thus attaining liberation from “me” or “I”, this is the ultimate reality, other wise known as Brahman. “The Hindu hopes to attain liberation from the samsaric illusion into the infinite being-consciousness-bliss of Brahman.” Ultimate reality is “the source of joy”, “supreme bliss”, it is mysterious; beyond definition. Brahman is a universal spirit or “the True Self of the self”. This spirit is one existent reality, it is in all of us, and our inner selves are one. It is up to the believers to understand Brahman, which engages a universal inner peace. “Therefore one who knows this, becoming pacified, controlled, at peace, patient, full of faith, should see the Self in the Self alone. He looks upon everyone as it. Everyone comes to be his Self; he becomes the Self of Everyone. He passes over all evil; evil does not pass over him. He subdues all evil; evil does not subdue him. He is free from evil, free from age, free from hunger, free from thirst, a Brahman, whoever possesses this Knowledge.” According to Hinduism, Brahman is everything, that nothing is separate from the self, including all universal aspects,fgggvbh Brahman is the highest goal, when it is found than the real truth and knowledge is acquired, and then nothing of this world matters. Unlike other religions that may believe in a God (ultimate) that is in a higher realm, Hindus believe that this ultimate is within each self and that all selves and everything is connected to that absolute reality. Most religions have a goal of reaching inner peace, but for many in Hinduism it is the whole eventual process and essence of why a person is Hindu.
Hinduism may be described as having a few basic philosophies. A belief in one ultimate reality (Brahman). A belief in the authority of the Vedas. Karma and Samsara being vital principles, while eventually attaining Moksha. Dharma, virtues and the recognition of caste duties. These are all-important aspects of this religion.
Hinduism cannot be either completely defined or described. With all the material and all of the different views within Hinduism, it can be overwhelming and confusing. This essay did not attempt to cover all of the necessary history or objectives of Hinduism, because of the immense volume of this topic. The Path of Devotion, the Bhagavad-Gita, yoga and modern scholars, are but further examples of what could be discussed when analyzing Hinduism. A library of books may be needed, to justly answer the question “what is religion?”
Hinduism helps give meaning for the follower’s lives. Like many religions, Hinduism has many influences and so it is difficult to satisfy all believers from one point of view. Religion needs to be a process of transformation to a sacred comfort for our basic human needs. Transformation is a large part of Hinduism. People need a sense of attachment in order to feel significant; much of Hinduism does this. Hinduism can describe phenomena, it can answer the great questions of life, why am I here, where am I going, what is the meaning of life and so on. Hindus feel life is not completely self-sufficient, people can only reach their full potential when they find something with a deeper and wider context, (religion). Different people are involved in Hinduism for a number of reasons; outside influences such as society may be the contributing factor to why a person becomes immersed in religion. Hinduism permeates in everything in India, and therefore it is almost impossible to not be influenced by it. Religion is life in India.
“If we look a little more closely at the religious situation in India, we discover that Hinduism and Indian culture (including its caste system) are almost one and the same. Hinduism is a comprehensive religion in the sense that there is really nothing that the Hindu does of a cultural nature-whether brushing one’s teeth, preparing food, encountering people in the street, or any other act-that does not have religious significance and some kind of religious prescription wrapped around it. ‘Hinduism is a culture and a religion at the same time?.religion and life are synonymous.’”
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