There are some key beliefs in Hinduism that are common to all the sections of the religion. Here we give a brief description of some of these:
- Brahman, Paramatma & Bhagavan
1. Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan
According to the Srimad Bhagavatam, God is realised in three stages: Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan. These are three manifestations of the One God, who is meditated and worshipped by the great sages and mystics through millennia after millennia.
In the first stage, one realizes the Supreme as an all-pervading reality, beyond words, beyond the mind, beyond matter, beyond all dualities. We may call it the One, the White Light, the Absolute, God, the Force, or whatever. That Supreme, one sees, is all that truly exists. In the Vedic literature, that Supreme is called Brahman.
Brahman is the signifying name given to the concept of the unchanging, infinite, immanent and transcendent reality that is the Divine Ground of all being. It is regarded as the source and sum of the cosmos, that constricted by time, space, and causation, as pure being, to some extent a sort of ‘world soul’. Thus, in the beginning of its history, it was deemed a sort of super-stuff from which all that is arises, and debuts with this verse:
Great indeed are the Gods who have sprung out of Brahman. Atharva Veda
However, as the centuries passed and the first Upanishads, the primary Vedantic scriptures that putatively serve as commentaries on the original liturgical books of the Vedas, are written the concept of Brahman fittingly grew in scope and complexity. Soon, the ancient writers of the Upanishads, around the 1st millennium BCE, insisted that brahman, in addition to being material, efficient, formal and final causes of the cosmos, was also utterly beyond all four senses of origin. Essentially, it is also beyond being and non-being alike, and thus does not quite fit with the usual connotations of the word God and even the concept of monism. It is said that brahman cannot be known, that we cannot be made conscious of it, because brahman is our very consciousness. Brahman is also not restricted to the usual dimensional perspectives of being, and thus enlightenment, moksha, yoga, samadhi, nirvana, etc. in the Hindu perspective is not merely coming to know brahman, but to realize one’s ‘brahman-hood’, to actually realize that one is and always was brahman. Indeed, closely related to the Self concept of brahman is the idea that it is synonymous with jiva-atma, or individual souls, our atman (or soul) being readily identifiable with the greater soul of Brahman.
In the second stage, one perceives that the Supreme is not only all-pervading but present within one’s own heart. What is that greater source within from which we derive inspiration, intuition, inner guidance?
By meditation one can realize that it is God, or the Supreme Absolute. The Vedic writings call this aspect of God the Paramatma, or Supersoul. The Vedic sages distinguish between the Supersoul and the small individual soul. Both reside within the heart, but one is infinite, the other infinitesimal.
The soul, the tiny spark of consciousness within, is my true self. It is by nature eternal, blissful, wise. But it is small, and so it may get lost in illusion and entangled in material life. But the Supersoul, great and infinite, is ever beyond illusion. And so it is this Supersoul to whom the minute soul turns, realizing that Supersoul to be the Supreme.
In the third stage, one realizes that the same Supreme Absolute, the same God, that pervades everything and resides within one’s heart exists also as the supreme individual person. Just as I, the soul, that small spark of consciousness, exist as a person, a conscious individual, so too does the supreme consciousness, the Absolute. Just as I have thoughts, feelings, intentions, so does the Supreme. And just as I have specific qualities and activities, so again does the Supreme.
The Supreme, in the personal feature, has all the attributes found in other living beings – but His are all infinite, unlimited, unrestricted by the conditions of matter. That Supreme, the Personality of Godhead, exists in His own realm, beyond all dualities and illusions. In the Vedic literature, this personal feature of the Absolute is called Bhagavan.
The Vedic teachers illustrate these three stages of realization by an example. When we look all around us we see the sun by its all-pervading light, the sunshine. When we look up into the sky we see the source of that light, the sun planet, powerful and brilliant. And if we could somehow go to that planet we could meet the sun-god, the person who rules the sun. All of these three are the sun. Yet one who sees only the sunlight has yet to see the sun planet, and one who sees only the sunlight and sun planet has yet to meet the sun-god. In a similar way, one who realizes only Brahman has yet to realize the Paramatma, one who realizes the Paramatma has yet to realize Bhagavan, but one who has realized Bhagavan has attained full realization, for he knows all three features of the Absolute.
The word dharma is used in most or all philosophies and religions of Indian origin, namely Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma), Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It occurs first in the Vedas, in its oldest form as dharman.
It is difficult to provide a single concise definition for ‘Dharma‘, the word has a complex history and an equivalently complex set of meanings. Monier Monier-Williams gives its primary definition as:
that which is established or firm, steadfast decree, statute, ordinance, law; usage, practice, customary observance or prescribed conduct, duty; right, justice (often as a synonym of punishment); virtue, morality, religion, religious merit, good works,
of which the first, ‘that which is established or firm’ seems to be the most ancient and etymological. ‘Dharma‘ is cognate with the Latin firmus, the origin of the word ‘firm’. Meanings related to law, morality, scripture, and teachings were probably acquired through analogy, by being regarded as firm and called as such. For the phenomenological or psychological meaning, see below.
In Hinduism, Yama, the god of death, is also known as Dharma, since he works within the laws of karma and morality, regulated by divine principles. More familiar to most Hindus is the embodiment of Dharma in Lord Rama, an avatar of Vishnu. Within Hindu communities, Dharma can also refer to the Hindu religion in general.
In scripture translations dharma is often best left untranslated, as it has acquired a lively life of its own in English that is more expressive than any simplistic translation. Common translations and glosses include ‘right way of living’, ‘divine law, ‘eternal constitutional position of the soul’, ‘path of righteousness’, ‘order’, ‘faith’, ‘natural harmony’, ‘rule’, ‘fundamental’ and ‘duty’. Dharma may be used to refer to ‘rules’ of the operation of the mind or universe in a metaphysical system, or to rules of comportment in an ethical system.
Origin and development in Hinduism
A common manner of describing Hinduism among its adherents is as a way of life, as ‘Dharma‘. It defies dogma and thus seeks to instead align the human body, mind, and soul in harmony with nature.
Our very limitation is guided under a universal understanding, that of Dharma. The Atharva Veda, the last of the four books of the Vedas, utilizes symbolism to describe dharma’s role. Thus we are bound by the laws of time, space and causation according to finite reality, which itself is a limitation imposed by the self-projection of the infinite Brahman as the cosmos. Dharma is the foundation of this causal existence, the one step below the infinite. Indeed, dharma is the projection of divine order from Brahman, and as such:
“Prithivim Dharmana Dhritam”
“This world is upheld by Dharma”
Dharma is not just law, or harmony, it is pure Reality. In the Brihadaranyaka’s own words:
“Verily, that which is Dharma is truth.
Therefore they say of a man who speaks truth, ‘He speaks the Dharma,’
or of a man who speaks the Dharma, ‘He speaks the Truth.’
Verily, both these things are the same.”
(Brh. Upanishad, 1.4.14) (2)
The law of Karma originated in the Vedic system of religion, otherwise known as Hinduism. As a term, it can at the latest be traced back to the early Upanishads, around 1500 BCE.
In its major conception, karma is the physical, mental and supramental system of neutral rebound, ’cause and effect’, that is inherent in existence within the bounds of time, space, and causation. Essentially what this means is that the very being which one experiences on (say, as a human being) is governed by an immutable preservation of energy, vibe, and action. It is comparable to the Golden Rule but denies the ostensible arbitrariness of Fate, Destiny, Kismet, or other such Western conceptions by attributing absolute reason and determinism to the workings of the cosmos.
Karma, for these reasons, naturally implies reincarnation or rebirth (though the opposite is not true) since thoughts and deeds in past lives will affect one’s current situation. Thus, every individual alike is responsible for the tragedies and good ‘fortunes’ which are experienced. Thus, what certain philosophical viewpoints may term ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’ is in actuality, according to believers of karma, the simple and neutral working out of karma. Many have likened karma to a moral banking system, a credit and debit of good and bad. However, this view falls short of the idea that any sort of action (action being a root meaning of ‘karma‘), whether we term it ‘good’ or ‘bad’, binds us in recurring cause and effect. In order to attain supreme consciousness, to escape the cycle of life, death, and rebirth and the knot of karma one must altogether transcend karma. This method of transcendence is variously dealt with in many streams of not only Hinduism and Buddhism, but other faiths and philosophical systems as well.
From Hinduism the concept of karma was absorbed and developed in different manners in other movements within the other Indian sub continental (South Asian) religions of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. Although these religions express significant disagreement regarding the particularities of ‘karma‘, all four groups have relatively similar notions of what karma is.
Hinduism sees karma as immutable law with involuntary and voluntary acts being part of a more intricate system of cause and effect that is often not comprehensible to one bound by karma. It is the goal of the Hindu, as expressed succinctly in the Bhagavad Gita, to embrace a ‘sattvic‘ lifestyle and thus avoid creating more karma (karma is not qualified as good or bad). By ceasing to create more karma, the jiva-atma or individual soul is able to move closer to moksha, or liberation.
To the Hindu, karma is the law of the phenomenal cosmos that is part and parcel of living within the dimensions of time and space. All actions, thoughts, vibrations of any sort, are governed by a law that demands perfect rebound. So all jiva-atmas (individual souls) must experience karma if they live and experience the phenomenal universe. To escape the cycle of life, death and rebirth, one must exhaust one’s karma and realize one’s true Self as the highest truth of Oneness that is Brahman (or for dvaitists (dualists) bliss with the Supreme Godhead).
In Hinduism, karma is of three kinds:
This karma is unchangeable within the scope of one life, since it is the ‘setup’ for the life in question. It is the karma of one’s past lives. After death, the atma leaves the body, as the casting off of old vestments, and carries with it the samskaras (impressions) of the past life of thoughts and actions and events. These samskaras manifest themselves in the unchangeable situation into which one is born and certain key events in one’s life. These include one’s time of death (seen as governed by an allotment from birth of the total number of one’s breaths for that life), one’s economic status, one’s family (or lack of family), one’s body type and look: essentially, the setting of one’s birth, the initial base.
The samskaras that one inherits from the last lives create one’s personality, inclinations, talents, the things that make up one’s persona. One’s likings, abilities, attitudes and inclinations are based on the thoughts and actions of past lives. One’s samchita karma is somewhat alterable through practice and effort towards change. This might be seen through the Hindu system of yoga and the dynamic of the gunas . An example would be someone who, through meditation, slowly evolved into a more stable personality.
Agami karma is the karma of the present life over which the soul has complete control. Through it one creates one’s karma in the present for the future of the current life and in life-times to come.
The Hindu cannot say, sometimes, if a major event in life is the doing of Prarabadha or Agami Karma. The idea of ‘bad things happening to good people’ is seen by the Hindu as a result of Prarabadha Karma, more simply understood as karma from a past life.
In Hinduism, karma works within a cyclical framework that sees the phenomenal universe being created and eventually dissolving back into itself, back into realization that it was nothing other than Maya imposed on the truth of Brahman. So Karma will eventually be worked out.
Karma does allow for anirudh (Divine Grace). Through exceeding devotion and love of God, the Hindu believes one can be helped to speed through Karma phal (Karmic fruit). By developing ‘vairagya‘ or ‘detachment’ from the fruits of one’s karma, as Lord Krishna most famously summarized, one can transcend karma and be liberated. One is aided by love of God. All the Yogas of Hinduism seek to transcend karma through different means of realization.
Moksha (Sanskrit: liberation) or mukti (Sanskrit: release) refers, in general, to liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. In higher Hindu philosophy, it is seen as a transcendance of phenomenal being, of any sense of consciousness of time, space and causation (karma). It is not seen as a soteriological goal in the same salvific sense as, say, in a Judeo-Christian context, but signifies dissolution of the sense of ‘I’, or ego, and the overall breakdown of nama-roopa (name-form). It is, in Hinduism, viewed as analogous to nirvana, though Buddhist thought tends to differ with even the Advaita Vedantist reading of liberation. Jainism also believes in moksha.
Hinduism, in support of the idea of moksha, posits the idea of atman and brahman. A common mistake is to view them, both spoken of as Self, as a monist being of sorts, something possessing substances. In actuality, Hindu scripture like the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, and especially the non-dual Hindu school of Advaita Vedanta, say that the Self or Super-Soul is beyond being and non-being, beyond any sense of tangibility and comprehension. Moksha is seen as a final release from one’s worldly conception of self, the loosening of the shackle of experiential duality and a re-establishment in one’s own fundamental nature, though the nature is seen as ineffable and beyond sensation.
Moksha, unlike the Buddhist counterpart of nirvana, is not a state of non-being but union with God and hence is not really analogous. Moksha is also termed mukti. The Bhagavad Gita condemns worship of demigods or deities as such worship is limited and does not lead to moksha.
Moksha in Hinduism is not really analogous to nirvana in Buddhism. For Hindus, moksha means union with God. Buddhism, being an atheistic religion, does not focus on God as nirvana is a state of non-being.
In Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism Samsāra refers to the concept of reincarnation or rebirth in Indian philosophical traditions.
Samsāra is derived from samsa, ‘to flow together’, to go or pass through states, to wander. One who is subject to Samsāra is called a samsarin.
Cycle of Rebirth
In most Indian philosophical traditions, including the orthodox Hindu and heterodox Buddhist and Jain systems, an ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is assumed as a fact of nature. These systems differ widely, however, in the terminology with which they describe the process and in the metaphysics they use in interpreting it. Most of these traditions, in their evolved forms, regard Samsāra negatively, as a fallen condition which is to be escaped. Some, such as Advaita Vedanta regard the world and Saṃsāric participation in it as fundamentally illusory . In other forms of Vedanta, notably the Vaishnavite traditions, the world is not seen as illusory, but merely temporary. Illusion in the Vaishnavite tradition is considered falsely identifying the soul to be the body.
In Hinduism, it is avidya, or ignorance, of one’s true self, that leads to ego-consciousness of the body and the phenomenal world. This grounds one in desire and the perpetual chain of karma and reincarnation. The state of illusion is known as Maya.
Hinduism had many terms for the state of liberation like moksha, mukti, nirvana, and mahasamadhi.