The Basics of Hinduism

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© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers has characterized the period of the 6th to the 2nd century BCE (before the common era) as the Axial Age. This is a period of the establishment and flourishing of new worldviews that began to replace the polytheistic religious views that were dominant before that time.

Many significant figures for the development of worldviews that were determinant for two thousand years lived at this time. In Greece, we see the early natural philosophers, as well as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (who for their part go on, along with the Old Testament prophets of this period, to strongly affect Christianity). In India, we see the formulation of the philosophical ideas in the Bhagavad Gita that serve as the foundation for the later developed Advaita Vedanta. We also see Buddha challenge the Hindu ideas that he inherited. In China, Loazi (the founder of Taoism) and Confucius (the founder of Confucianism) begin to develop their philosophical systems …

Advaita Vedanta

… Here we will only survey some basic ideas of the school of Indian philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta. This philosophical school was developed by the philosopher Shankara in the eighth century of the common era. Yet it draws on ideas in the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, sacred texts within the Hindu tradition, the latter of which was developed in the Axial Age. Advaita Vedanta is particularly important for its clear expression of pantheism, the idea that there is one thing and that thing is God. Hindus view everything in the world as ultimately an expression of one underlying godhead.

While the main forms of Hinduism are pantheistic, Hinduism generally also accepts that one can speak of a plurality of gods. Hinduism generally acknowledges hundreds of thousands, or some say even millions, of gods. Yet the entire Hindu pantheon can all be viewed as expressions of the same underlying godhead, Brahman. Hindus believe that one can worship any of them as a vehicle for Moksa, or enlightenment. Brahman can work through the varying guises.

Given that Hinduism generally accepts that one can worship any of the various manifestations of the Godhead, Hinduism is also known as henotheism. Henotheism identifies all particular deities ultimately with one ultimate reality and accepts that one may worship whichever manifestation one wants. As a rule, the proponents of Advaita Vedanta focus on seeing this philosophically, however, and emphasize Brahman.

While this is already complicated, in fact, the discussion of ultimate reality in Advaita Vedanta is more complicated still: Just as that pantheon can be identified with the one Godhead, Brahman, so all different people and things in the world can ultimately be viewed as expressions of a single world soul, known as Atman. This world soul is the true Self underlying many apparently separate visages of individuals. So you and I and all others are actually expressions of this world-soul comparable to how the manifold gods are really expressions of one basic godhead, Brahman.

Ultimately, in fact, yoga (in any of its multiple forms that allow a binding of the individual to the Godhead) will unveil that Brahman and Atman are also really unified. In other words, those forms identified with transcendent Brahman (the pantheon of gods) and the individuals of the world (viewed as expressions of Atman) are themselves really one thing. This too is called Brahman. Rightly understood, the transcendent and the immanent aspects of the Godhead are seen as unified: Brahman and Atman are the self-same. Advaita Vedanta also … has well-known views about the soul and its possible reincarnation and posits laws that control the transmigration of the soul–karma. These ideas will be expanded on later, as we also consider philosophical conundrums of pantheism.

One of the most serious questions involves ethics: For example, if all individuals are really an expression of the one Godhead, of Brahman, then what ultimate importance do moral ideas possess? If they slayer and the slain are one and the same, as is famously said in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, then how do we really make sense of moral command not to kill? (Shankara’s commentary on some of the Upanishads can be found online.)

Other questions concern what evidence is really sufficient for showing that there really is only one substance, Brahman and that our sense of individual existent entities is ultimately illusory? What evidence, too, is strong enough that we might believe that there is a soul and that reincarnation really occurs? Other questions of the afterlife also present themselves: Sri Aurobindo, a premier Indian philosopher of the 20th century and the developer of Integral Yoga, has asked what real consolation a belief in reincarnation provides for individuals given that it is not the individual self as we normally understand it who is reincarnated. If a man named John in one life is reincarnated as Leslie in a future life, there is in some sense no more John. Leslie will not generally have memories of having been John. John’s body will not exist, etc.

Of course, the discussion here of this as “Hindu philosophy” is oversimplified. There are minority positions within Hindu philosophy, like the Dvaita Vedanta, that are not monistic, … Proponents of Dvaita Vedanta are dualists who maintain that in fact the Godhead, the world, and the individuals in the world exist as separate substances. They focus also on the personal worship of Vishnu.

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6 thoughts on “The Basics of Hinduism

  1. Well as you point out, as world views change then the structure of belief changes. Many gods to one god then to no god then to a simulation and whatever comes next after that. To me it would make some sense to suspect that these deities or lack of are all man created beliefs. The question then is not so much which one is correct
    but rather what is our purpose for creating these religious world views in the first place and might we be doing the exact same thing with most of our other beliefs about reality?

    Hinduism wins first prize for the best looking gods imo. That makes it best imo. So I’m a Hindu if anyone’s asking.

  2. Good article, and comment by J. Miller.

    “One of the most serious questions involves ethics: For example, if all individuals are really an expression of the one Godhead, of Brahman, then what ultimate importance do moral ideas possess? If they slayer and the slain are one and the same, as is famously said in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, then how do we really make sense of moral command not to kill? (Shankara’s commentary on some of the Upanishads can be found online.)”

    How do we really make sense of moral command not to kill? Perhaps it is not always a command, but sometimes a moral suggestion?
    At any rate, outright murder is considered morally wrong by faiths– however regulated killing in ‘just’ war is regarded as ethically permissible. Merely take a brief look at the Mideast. (Which is Western Asia.) Thousands of years of religious/political evolution led to sophisticated rationalization of killing in war; murder has been frequently perceived as random killing whereas killing in war has always been seen as purposeful. Kashoggi is a recent example of a killing in service of state-sanctioned political warfare.
    Thus for a believing Hindu, there need be no conflict between the conscience and killing in an allegedly just war. Hindus have killed millions of Muslims, and vice versa naturally, in justified warfare.

  3. …Understood you are writing of the philosophy– the brief real-world explanation of my comment is a digression. However no way to reply directly concerning the philosophy.

  4. Alan E. “How do we really make sense of moral command not to kill? Perhaps it is not always a command, but sometimes a moral suggestion?”

    I like the thought there. And I have struggled with that for some time that is finally in my past. I think I’ve got a clear signal. IMO nothing can “command” from the outside with any authority if it doesn’t jibe with the voice from within. I don’t need a creator to tell me not to kill. My heart does that very clearly when I’ve enabled myself to hear it. The outside voice of authority be it God or Man usually seems more intent on obfuscation of that ability to hear the voice of my heart than to help it grow. That is why I’ve generally come to disregard those “commands” in favor of my own.

    I don’t like to kill. That’s my biggest objection to living in a 3d material body. This realm is all built on killing of one kind or another and I see that the religions of this material realm while on some level seeming a good guide seem to me now more of a way of maintaining a status quo and as long as I go with that I’m stuck here. And I don’t want to be stuck here.

  5. Thanks Alan and J. Miller. In these blog postings I guess I haven’t expressly taken up truth value in a hard way. I’ve mentioned some contradictions that lead to logical difficulties in the worldviews, etc. I guess I find there is some value in the Hindu tradition in looking beyond the self as isolated and seeing it as interconnected. But I am not able to see any grounds for affirming much more than you get in ecosystems biology. We’re obviously dependent on the natural world around us and in exchange with it. Yet I don’t see what could lead me to affirm the existence of Being as a whole as some form of consciousness like Atman or Brahman. The focus of Hinduism on a system of interrelationships can be quite helpful it seems. But I guess it needs to be demythologized. About killing. Yes, virtually all religions justify some type of warfare. The logical conundrum for Hinduism appears to me to be whether there can really be any prohibition to killing even for mundane reasons. If there is one thing, ultimately, then it is acting on itself. I guess maybe we as individuals could have a prohibition to self-harm. Expanded cosmically, we would stop harming those that appear as other in alignment with a prohibition to self-harm. (Just a thought. Since I don’t think we exist as one cosmic unified entity without difference, this is a very theoretical question for me.)

  6. I have serious issues with believing in a good outcome based on my experiences in this physical existence. I’ve had mindbendingly cosmically beautiful experiences with psychedelics and MDMA. I’ve even had some wonderful experiences in the natural world. However they have been hugely offset by experiences of great suffering and seeing a world enmeshed in great suffering. Any belief system that states there is some benefit to such IMO mostly pointless and often cold heartedly human created suffering does not get my allegiance. I have no idea why I feel the way I do. Am I just a determined soft hearted nobody made to some purpose I have no say in? Well who in their right mind wouldn’t resent that? I find that all religions see us basically as either slaves or ignorant and weak and in need salvation. I’m finally at a point in my life where I can, without overwhelming fear, stand and say no, I do not accept this willingly. My heart and gut tells me to get out of this world and sees something monstrous going on within my species and our technological developments which we call growth and progress. There is no real progress IMO when we become only colder and more efficient and careless about our killing and destruction of our environment all so we can relax in an easy chair that warms our butt and massages our back while others burn or starve and lose their homes. IMO all the religions are miserable failures at addressing the problem of mankind. Only very courageous men like David Benatar who are confirmed antinatalists can see that we are unable to grow emotionally and should end the madness and horrific suffering we create moment to moment and that we enable ourselves to ignore with all the tactics that Ernest Becker has described in his work. I see no real point in any of this and do not see many really learning from all this. And just because I might be having a good day or a fairly easy go of it in life does not justify this existence. It just shows how self centered and non compassionate I’ve become or have been created to be. We are on the fail boat and I’m in total disagreement with anyone who denies this. Which is practically everyone, due IMO to their fear of death and fear of facing the horrors of existence. No species has ever had their head more deeply buried in the cement.

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