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A Few Good Things

"Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." – Ibn Battuta

A Few Good Things

Tag: Shankara

Am I a Hindu ? Religion & Spirituality

What makes you a Hindu ?  Praying to God , visiting a temple , performing rites & poojas, chanting mantras , maybe wearing a  Sacred Thread if you are a Brahmin, celebrating festivals , eating sweets & savories, knowing your mythologies & maybe an attempt at reading the Bhagwad Gita ! Is that it or is there more to being a Hindu ?

Most religions have one holy book The Holy Bible , The Holy Quaran , The Guru Granth Sahib to name a few . Hinduism has thousands – 4 Vedas , 108 Upanishads, Holy Gita , Vedangas, Darsanas , Itihasas Puranas , Upavedas, Agamas , Upangas, Tantras , Charvakas, Manusmriti Puranas and many many more. You can spend a lifetime doing a Phd in Indology trying to figure out the meaning of all that is written in these ancient scriptures

Most Religions are based on the teachings of 1 Spiritual Leader – a person who had visions from God , the Holy Son , a Messiah, Buddha , Mahavira  – a person who was spiritually awakened. Hinduism has hundreds of Rishis who after intense meditation heard the voice of God and were able to narrate their learnings for all and transferred them to ancient scriptures.

What is Religion ?  The teachings of the Holy Prophet that has now been institutionalised. Is it original , is it diluted , is the essence lost ? The goal of every Religion is to awaken you and take you on the path of self realization – has religion succeeded in that mission. To me it looks like Religion is the cause of most of the wars we have seen in our lifetime and before. Its also the basis for caste systems and to demean women.

What is Spirituality ? This leads us a question of Who is God & Who Am I ? How did Life begin ? Why is Man so evolved a animal ? Is God the statue in a temple ?  How come the Holy Vedas never talked about Temples & Deities ?

One of the greatest spiritual thinkers of our time has been Swami Vivekananda – he made an interesting observation ” If you have faith in all the three hundred and thirty millions of your mythological gods, … and still have no faith in yourselves, there is no salvation for you. Have faith in yourselves, and stand up on that faith and be strong; that is what we need

Swami-Vivekananda

Shiva may live in Mansarovar & Vishnu may be in the ocean of Milk – and thats a big MAYBE , but history has recorded that Buddha, Mahavira , Christ , Shankara, Vivekananda , Ramkrishna , Ramana Maharishi lived on earth. Its interesting to read about them and understand how they reached Spiritual Bliss and what is their interpretation of “Who is God” ? You will see a common thread. The exercise of connecting their spiritual learnings is a complex exercise but I will at least try and connect a few dots.

The common theme that emerges from all of them and all the ancient scriptures of every Religion is that God is everywehere. There is immense potential in every individual. We are able to utilize only a fraction of our potential. We spend too much time on the materialistic body and hardly any time to know what is that power which gives us life & intellect. The mere act of spending 30 min to focus on your breath gives you so much peace every day. Think of what you can achieve if you are able to meditate for years and get to know your inner self .

Here is an attempt to try and simplify the meaning of how there is a bit of God in every human being – Let us assume that God is the massive infinite Power Grid and this grid is connected to every living being. Each living being is like a bulb with different capacity. Someone glows at 10W while someone glows at 100W. But suppose you had the power in you to increase your capacity from 10W to 100W . another way of looking at it is that we are all a node of a massive cluster of computers connected to a supercomputer , each node has a different power but can communicate with the mainframe , some have a 256 KB link while others have a 4 MB pipe  – then all of life is a connected world. Just like Sun Micrcosystem said ” we are the dot in the dotcom ” – maybe  there is a  dot of God in all of us. And thats exactly what Shankara talks about in his concept of Advaita. And what every Religion spells out  in their holy books

And spiritual awakening is nothing but magnifying this dot till it merges with the mainframe which is infinite God. Vipassna , 8 fold path , Chakra awakening, every religion has a route  to elevate yourself to spiritual bliss. To meditate and focus on this you need to cut out the material world. So when the Taliban says – No music , dance , entertainment – they are not wrong – because these are distractions to the cause of  spiritual awakening , just that the journey is an individual one and cannot be forced on anyone by a bunch of  religious fanatics.

Just spend a few days at an ashram with simple Sattvic food ,  no TV , no music , no Internet , no phone , no talking to anyone and see the calming effect it will have in you. The stress, noise , transactions around us makes it very difficult for us to be in touch with our inner self.

Which brings me back to the main theme of  Religion Vs Spirituality. And Osho explains this beautifully in his book – “Belief , Doubt & Fanaticism“. He says don’t be a Christian, Buddhist , Hindu or Jain   – Try being Christ, Buddha, Shankara or  Mahavira. Follow the journey they took and then you will experience the joy  and eternal bliss they were able to achieve – what  Religion preaches today is no way close to what they practiced in their lives – a little bit of deviation by each set of followers has created a huge divide from the original thoughts of our great spiritual leaders.

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And to be a Christ , Buddha or Shankara you have to ask the question that Ramana Maharishi asked ” Who am I ” – the answer to this can come only from introspection & meditation. Meditation is not easy. The toughest job is to control the mind. Try doing it for a few minutes in a peaceful and quiet surrounding and then slowly you will be able to master the art.

Doubtless, oh great warrior, the mind is difficult to subdue. It is restless all the time. But oh! Son of Kunti, the mind can be conquered by repeated exercises and dispassion to sensual objects.” — Krishna to Arjuna, Bhagavad Gita 6:34

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As I slowly start questioning and reading the feeling I get is that the core of Hinduism is not about praying to millions of Gods and doing mundane rituals & poojas – it is about finding the road to Spiritual Salvation. A wonderful read that explains the essence of Hinduism is “ Am I a Hindu ” by Ed Vishwanathan. This is a must read for every Hindu –  a well written simple book,  a quick 4  hr read that explains in simple Questions and Answers everything you will want to know about Hinduism. Its an excellent primer for every Hindu to know about his religion.
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Origin & Evolution of Hinduism – In simple layman terms

It all started a few months back. As we were studying History my daughter wanted to know who was the founder of Hinduism? My initial response was the common answer – Hinduism is a way of life.  But I realized there is more to it.

I consider myself quite religious – What is the concept of Hindu Religion to me ? –  Visiting a temple once a week  (and visiting old ancient temples both for history and grace regularly) , doing a small puja at home on every traditional occasion and chanting the slokas I learnt from my mother when I was 6 ,  calling a Vadyar  for any function – Griha Pravesh, Upanayanam etc , lots of rituals , lots of superstition, listening to Vishnu Sahasranam on the way to office – in short my concept of Religion is what I have learnt from Amar Chitra Katha , TV Serials, Stories told to us as kids. And thats exactly the manner in which I am propagating religion to my kids.

I have not read the Vedas, The Upanishads, The Bhagvad Gita, The Puranas ( But I plan to do so) – and I am not sure how many of my 600+ friends & relatives in FB & Linked In  would have read them. Fortunately the religion does not mandate that I read them – but I ask myself am I true Hindu without understanding what is written in these books ?

Basis a bunch of books I read ( thanks to Flipkart and its excellent collection) , a visit to the Ramana Maharishi & Aurobindo Ashram recently and finally a sitting with a wonderful couple in our complex I slowly started connecting the dots. This journey can be very very exciting and it can take years to get deeper & deeper. Most people start this exercise when they are 60+, but that is futile as you cannot practise the learnings when 80% of life is over. So this blog is an attempt to share some simple information and hopefully some may get interested to dwell deeper.

The first step in starting this exercise is to try  map and the different stages of evolution – a sort of an index that can help one in getting started. Here is my attempt at drawing up a time map. What is interesting to see how the journey moves with time  from Priests – Rishis  – Cult Leaders and finally to Scholars. Along the journey you will see that History , Religion & Spirituality are entwined together.

Phases of Evolution 

1. The Indus Valley Civilization ends around 1800 – 1900 BC. They were highly evolved builders and excavations show large man made structures, figurines of what could be deities, Lingams etc. Nobody know what caused their disintegration – but their decline mirrors the decline of other civilizations like Sumerian & Mesopotamian.

2. Distance from Iran (Persia) to Indus Valley is as close as Mumbai is to Bangalore – so migration to fertile pastures could have easily happened as the nomadic Aryans moved around. In the Rig veda we see many similiarities with Persia & the area around it – Fire God, Sacred Thread , use of Horses , Hymns praising Nature, Ahura the God ( who later probably became Asura)

3. The Vedic Aryans believed in Nature Gods. Fire (Agni) , Wind (Vayu) , Dawn (Usha) , Thunder (Rudra) , Lightning (Indra)  etc – very similar to what we see in Greek Mythology. The mode of prayer was the Yagna – hymns being chanted in praise of Gods and a lot of  animal sacrifice. The Hymns that we see in the initial part of the Rig Veda were mainly in praise of Nature Gods – they were like songs ( Easy to remember Vs prose) – the sanskrit used is very archaic. The Initial part of the Rigveda or the Samhita almost entirely comprises  of these hymns. There is no spiritual meaning here

2. As the travelers started settling down in Tribes they created their own “Gothrams” or Clans and the most knowledgeable person of the Clan was made the Chief. (The word Gorthram is linked to Cows and it could well have been the the Chief – the most intelligent of the clan had the task of sorting out infiights amongst the tribe when the cattle got mixed up)

3. These Chiefs then became the Priests to the Tribal Kings. In addition to the Samhitas now came the Brahmanas around 1000 BC. These talked of different rituals and how they were to be conducted. It talks about how the Altar for the Yagnas has to be set up. The Samhita & The Brahmanas together called the Karmakanda may rightly be called the Phase – 1 of  Rig Veda and the Vedic Religion or the Origin of Hinduism. They were merely chantings with no spiritual meaning as yet.

Unlike the Harappan culture – hardly any construction activity was unearthed from the ancient Aryans. So the fancy Palaces and Towns we read about in Mahabharata & Ramayana may just be imagination. Bull & Horse Sacrifice was common – and meat eating across all was prevalent. (There is more to the Aswamedha Yagna – than just a lovely white horse roaming around !!)

4. The next phase is that of the Aranyakas – or Forest Literature. This is the phase when the Rishis went to the forests & mountains and meditated. Many of them attained self actualization and developed Siddhis or supernatural powers. The knowledge they gained were considered as inputs  directly from God.  This repository of knowledge evolved over nearly 1000 years and was completed around 200 BC. This is called Vedanta or the Spiritual Literature and is a fountainhead of knowledge. 

5. Mahabharata , Ramayana & Gita.  There is reference in the Vedas to a major war that was fought around 900 BC. There is also mention to the Kuru Clan of Tribes. So it is indeed true that a big war was fought and it does find mention in many texts – but a lot of the wonderful stories woven around this war may well be the work of an excellent imaginative writer. Even the Gita may have been written over a 500 year period and reached its final shape around 200 – 300 AD.  The Ramayana is probably dated around 3rd Century BC.

6. Around 500 BC the Buddhist & Jain eras begin. ( Not many know that there was a 3rd religion called Ajinkayas – whose founder broke away from Mahavira).  Contrary to most beliefs Buddha and the Buddhists were meat eaters while the Jains were pure vegetarians. .This continued for nearly a 1000 years and by 500 AD a large part of India was under the sway of these religions, there was a need to Re establish Hinduism.

It was under the Gupta era that the concept of large temples started to develop. These become community centers for social & religious events. Some say that some of the Temples were actually built on top of Buddhist temples.  The concept of deities & temples was unknown to the Vedic Aryans. The original inhabitants of the country (Dasyus – the word Das or servant probably originates from here) had a practise of  praying to Rocks , Figurines , Devis , Shiva Lingams etc. Gods like Mariamman , Ayyappa and Muruga were prevalent in S India as early as 500 BC or earlier.

The oldest Hindu temple functioning today, and  not  in ruins, would be the Ma Mundeshwari  Temple in Kaimur District of Bihar. It has been  restored by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and its construction date is ascribed to . 108 A D. Since then rituals and worship have been taking place at this temple without a break. Thus making it the oldest functional Hindu  temple. So the history of temples in India is just about 2000 years old. 

By 500 BC  the 4 vedas were established – the original Rig Veda , The Sama Veda containing songs in praise of the gods & the Yajur Veda with ritual practise and finally the Atharva  Veda & The Tantras wilth magic spells.   Tantric cult spread to the east and is prevalent in some cults to this day. The Vedas were never written till about 100 AD, it was always passed on from generation to generation by memorizing . When it was recorded it was observed that there was no difference between what was produced in Kashmir or S india. This is indeed fascinating. Caste system which has been prevalent since the ancient Vedic Era became more stronger and sub castes started to develop.

This was also the time when the other Shastras namely Manusmriti, Arthashastra, Kamasutra ,  Brahmashastra & Grihashastra were written. The writing of Megasthenes also helped us to get an insight into life in those days.

7. The Puranas were started around 4th & 5th century AD. They continued to evolve till the 13th century.  The Concept of Bhakti Yoga started evolving from T Nadu after 300 AD. Two sects Vaishnavites & Shaivities slowly emerged – the Vishnu Purana & The Shiva Purana was written. All the existing Gods were bracketed under the two sects. The concept of the Avatars of Vishnu emerged and in some cases even Buddha was incorporated as an avatar of Vishnu. This was in a way a merger of the Aryan Vedic Religion and the Old Religion of the existing inhabitants. An attempt to make Religion easy to understand to the masses.

Between the  7th Century & 10th Century AD the 63 Nayannars wrote passionately in praise about Shiva.

And then there were the 33 Alvars from the Vaishnavite  sect. The alvars came from a variety of social strata; their ranks include shudras and one woman. The intense devotionalism of their poetry and insistence that caste and sex are no barrier to a relationship with the Divine is uncharacteristic of classical Vedic thought, which laid a strong emphasis on the performance of the social and religious duties proper to one’s place in the social structure. Some of these were collected into a definitive canon known as the Nālāyira Divya Prabandha (“divine composition of 4000 verses”), by Nathamuni in the 10th century, and came to be seen as a source of revelation equal in authority to the Vedas in the Śrīvaiṣṇava community.

Around 800 AD Shankara played a crucial role of rejuvenating Hinduism and setting up centres across the country – following in a way the monastic traditions of Buddhism. he played a crucial role in linking the 6 Major Indian Philosophies. he summarized the ten main Upanishads explained the concept of Advaitham & Hinduism.

By 1100 AD  Ramanujam gave a fillip to Vaishnavism & Hindu revival – in the midst of muslim domination. Many gods were merged to be called forms of Vishnu, this  includes Venkata – of the famous Tirupathi hills at his time. A temple that came to prominence during the reign of Krishnadeva Raya.

There have been other famous seers and philosophers who have heard the voice of the inner self & God and reached self actualisation – Raghavendra Swamy , Madhavacharya,  Ramana Maharishi , Ramakrishna , Swami Vivekananda, Aurobindo and many spiritual leaders of today. Each one has evolved their own road to self actualisation. There are but 4 paths to choose from  Gyana Yoga , Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga (As explained in the Gita)  & Raja Yoga. A common link across  all these is the Pathanjali Yoga – Yoga as a form of mediation is said to be as ancient as the origin of the Vedic Religion.

Each area mentioned above is a wealth of information in itself and as I mentioned in the beginning the true meaning of Hindu Religion and its interpretation can be unique to every individual. There is a wealth of knowledge sitting there – and fortunately many Indians & Europeans have done extensive research in this area and created abridged versions – so it is possible to get all the insight you need without knowing Sanskrit.

As I continue to read some of these books will try and share the insights as best as I can. But I hope this relatively long blog has helped answer some questions and create a base foundation for each one of you  to start their own journey in search of  Truth.

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