For my Interfaith course, I have to do homework on the world’s major religions. I thought I might share my crib notes here in case anyone else is curious about these faiths. I can heartily recommend Huston Smith’s book if you want to see where I got all these excellent insights from.
The Hindu Approach to Finding God
The Hindu journey is to realise one’s total being; to tap into infinity deep inside the self.
There are four disciplines, or methods of training, called “yogas,” which can lead to the integration of the human spirit with the God deep inside it.
“How to come to Brahman and remain in touch with Brahmanl how to become identified with Brahman, living out of it; how to become divine while still on Earth…is the quest that has inspired and deified the human spirit in India throughout the ages.” (Zimmer, 1969: 80-81).
A person chooses their preferred yoga based on their personality traits as they relate to spirituality:
- Primarily reflective: jnana yoga
- Primarly emotional: bhakti yoga
- Primarly active: karma yoga
- Primarly experimental: raja yoga
The first steps of all four yogas are to do with morality: non-injury, honesty, non-steling, self-control, cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, and a desire to reach the goal. The law of karma refers to the moral law of cause and effect from one incarnation to the next, creating a sense of total personal responsibility.
Jnana yoga: The Way to “God” Through Thought
This is the yoga meant for me. It is the path of knowledge: an “intuitive disernment that transforms, turning the knower eventually into that which she knows.” (Smith, 1997). This yoga is for people given to the life of the mind.
The three key stages towards deeply understanding that you are more than your finite self are:
- Learning that your essential being is Being by reading and listening to teachers.
- Thinking and reflecting on everyday language and metaphors which point towards the infinite Self.
- Shifting your self-identification to the abiding Self.
In stage 3, instead of thinking, “I am walking down the street,” the jnani might think, “There goes Jackie walking down the street.”
During and outside of meditation periods, the jnani would constantly remind herself that she is Spirit, witnessing the activities of a finite self. The objective is to split the consciousness of ego and the infinite Self, Atman. This cultivates detachment and forces decreased identification with the “surface self” and increased identification with the deeper, infinite Being. This Being is transpersonal, infinite.
The jnani is satisfied with the idea of “God” as Nirguna Brahman, “God-without-attributes”: utter reality, infinite being, infinite consciousness, infinite bliss.
Bhakti yoga: The Way to “God” Through Love
This is the most popular of the four yogas, designed for people who are best motivated by emotion. The bhakta will not conceive of “God” as one’s deepest Self, which is what the jnani does. The bhakta conceives of “God” as other. The bhakti’s goal is not to identify with God, but to love God.
In bhakti yoga, people utilise images of God, rituals and myths. Huston Smith quotes a common invocation used by Hindu priests:
O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou ar without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations.
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations. (Smith, 1998).
The bhakta will engage in a number of useful practices which cultivate this selfless love of God such as:
- Japam: the practice of repeating God’s name all day long
- Ringing the changes on love: utilising different relational images of God to cultivate the various modes of love e.g. parental, sibling, friend, lover
- Chosen ideal: developing a lifelong devotion to an ishta, one of the manifestations of God
The bhakti utilises the Saguna Brahman, “God-with-attributes”: a personal conception of God.
Karma yoga: The Way to “God” Through Work
This yoga is suited to people with an active procilivity. God can be found by throwing yourself into work, which becomes a “vehicle for self-transcendence” (Smith, 1997).
The type of karma yoga you choose to practise will depend on temperament. For those who are reflectively motivated, karma yoga can be practised via jnana (knowledge). For those who are emotionally motivated, karma yoga can be practised by bhakti (devoted service).
For the jnani practising karma yoga, working without thought of the self helps to cut away her egotism until she is no longer separate from God. She works in detachment from her surface self, as the eternal Self observing the action. She does not work for gratification of the ego.
“The knower of Truth, being centres in the Self should think, ‘I do nothing at all.’ While seeing, breathing, speaking, letting go, holding, opening and closing the eyes, he observes only senses moving amongst other sense objects.” (Swami Swarupananda, 1933: 125).
For the bhakti practising karma yoga, work is done for God’s sake rather than for the self. “Each task becomes a sacred ritual.” (Smith, 1998).
Raja yoga: The Way to “God” Through Psychophysical Exercise
This yoga is for those with a scientific mind. The raji will experiment on her own mind by conducting prescribed mental exercises and then observing what happens. The meditator tests the hypothesis that the human self is made up of layers: the physical body, the mind, the sub-conscious, and Being.
The meditator will abstain from injury, lying, stealing, sensuality and greed in order to make it easier to engage in introverted investigation. She will also observe cleanliness, contentment, self-control, studiousness, and contemplation of the divine.
She will then practise the asanas, which are physical postures of balance and ease somewhere between drowsiness and discomfort, creating a physical state of relaxed attentiveness. The lotus position is the most well-known of these meditative postures.
The meditator will train her breathing to prevent disruptions of concentration. She will also train her single-pointed concentration so that she is not disrupted by external stimuli such as noises, or internal thoughts.
Concentration then deepens into meditation, and the object which she concentrates on becomes merged with her self, making self-concsciousness disappear.
The final state which the meditator may gain is samadhi, which means “together with God,” or “comepltely absorbed in God.” In this state, form itself falls away. The mind continues to “think,” but of no thing. It is “filled with that which is separated from all qualities, neither this nor that, without form, without a name.” (Smith, 1998).
Stages of Life
In Hindu thinking, people’s lives follow four approximate stages:
- Student: a period focused on cultivating habits and practices
- Householder: In this stage, a person focuses on satisfying human wants: pleasure (through marriage and family), success (through vocation), and duty )through participation in the community)
- Retirement: Withdrawal from social obligations to engage in spiritual exploration
- Sannyasin: Return to the world as a person who has discovered the difference between the finite and infinite self, often as a mendicant or economically independent person who has no more interest in the body
“God has made different religions to suit different aspirations, times, and countries. All doctrines are only so many paths; but a path is by no means God himself. Indeed, one can reach God if one follows any of the paths with whole-hearted devotion.” (Sri Ramakrishna, 1903).
I really like the inclusive spirit of Hinduism, which seems to embrace Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, even Christianity as different paths to God. Naturally in a social and cultural context this does not always play out as religious tolerance – witness Gandhi’s assassination, or anti-Moslem riots. But the philosophy itself (as with most world religions, when you get under their cultural surface) is incredibly open-hearted and open-minded.
The ideas of the different yogas for different personality types in Hinduism really makes sense to me. I have always tried to shoehorn myself into a devotional model, as that was all that was ever offered in my Catholic upbringing (I didn’t have any exposure to Christian mystics in suburban Australia!).
Reading about the jnana yoga approach, I felt like I was seeing a place for myself in a religious framework for the first time. As Hindus acknowledge, we all utilise various aspects of all the paths, and I also get a lot from meditation and work (the raja yoga and karma yoga). But I have never felt comfortable “naming” God or praying to a He, or She for that matter.
The chapters in the Bhagavad-Gita which seems to outline the jnana yoga approach for me best are “Religion by the Kingly Knowledge and the Kingly Mystery” and “The Manifesting of the One and Manifold” (Trans. Arnold, 1993).
“Receive and strive to embrace
The mystery majestical! My Being –
Creating all, sustaining all – still dwells
Outside of all!
“See! As the shoreless airs
Move in the measureless space, but are not space,
(And space were space without the moving airs);
So all things are in Me, but not I.”
I also like the following passage, because of Arjuna’s reaction, which is a beautiful way of describing how humans cannot stand to behold the Unnameable for long.
“So did Pandu’s Son behold
All this universe enfold
All its huge diversity
Into one vast shape, and be
Visible, and viewed, and blended
In one Body – subtle, splendid,
Nameless – th’ All-comprehending
God Of Gods, the Never-Ending
But, sore amazed,
Thrilled, o’erfilled, dazzled, and dazed,
Arjuna knelt; and bowed his head,
And clasped his palms; and cried…”
There are a LOT of Hindu texts. The “Vedas” are “revealed texts” which include four main parts:
- Samhita or Mantra (prayers and devotional hymns)
- Brahmanas (commentaries and priestly texts)
- Aranyakas (rituals)
- Upanishads (esoteric philosophical texts)
The Upanishads are the most influential amongst these, and in modern Hinduism the Bhagavad-Gita is the primary scripture. For a more detailed account of these texts, take a look at Arvind Sharma’s book.
Arvind Sharma, ed. Our Religions. (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).
Edwin Arnold (trans.) The Bhagavad-Gita. (Toronto: Dover Publications, 1993).
Heinrich Zimmer, The Philosophies of India, 1951. Reprint. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press: 1969).
Huston Smith, The World’s Religions. 2nd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998). Swami Swarupananda, trans., Srimad-Bhagavad-Gita (Mayavati, Himalayas: Adavita Ashrama, 1933).
Swami Abhedananda, The Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (New York: The Vedanta Society, 1903).