Hinduism is obviously a diversity of different schools and traditions connected with each other by the dogmas and special vision of reality taken from one sacred text – the Vedas, “the scriptural bedrock of the Hindu tradition” (Novak 2) – and one geographic area they all originate from – Indus Valley. As God is believed to be the main authority for the life of the faithful, the question of authority in religion (that is in fact the way to God) is vital for the religion traditions. Hinduism faces the problem of authority of texts.
The main written authorities are sacred texts, or scriptures; those are believed to have divine origin and to be the main source for all the religion doctrines, dogmas, beliefs, values, practices and institutions. The sacred texts in Hinduism are Vedic texts, or the Vedas – Rig, Sama, Yajur, Atharva, – that are being recognized as an authority by all the variety of different schools, sects, teachings and movements that belong to what is used to be called Hinduism. As Hopkins says: There is no doubt that Vedic texts, both ritual and philosophical, have had enormous influence on the religious language and concepts of Hinduism.
In that sense the Vedas are authoritative…All Hindus would agree that the Vedas are authoritative, and in fact this agreement is one of the major characteristics defining what we mean by ‘Hinduism’. What interesting about the Vedas is that they actually, do not belong to the indigenous religious traditions of the people of Indus Valley (pre-Vedic citizens of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro), but were brought there as oral knowledge by the ethnic groups that called themselves ‘noble’ (Arya), in the second millennium BCE (Welbon 34).
Even the main doctrines that unite all traditions of Hinduism, such as karma, the cyclical destruction of the world, caste system, the burning of widows, the ban on remarriage, images of gods and temples, a worship (Puja), Yoga, pilgrimages, vegetarianism, the holiness of cows, the doctrine of the stages of life (ashrama) did not exist in Vedic: “…all the key terms of Hinduism either do not exist in Vedic or have a completely different meaning…Thus, it is justified to see a turning point between the Vedic religion and Hindu religions” (Michaels 38).
The same Novak says in “The Worlds Wisdom”, that “the doctrines most of us associate with Hinduism – the cycle of reincarnations driven by karma and the liberation from this bondage by means of yogic discipline-were to be reflected ‘only a thousand years later in the most recent layers of Vedic literature” (Novak, 24). Interesting that not only the religious believes of pre-Vedic people and the Aryas differed, but, according to Hopkins, there was even a rivalry between the Indus Valley citizens and the Aryan people: “Early Arian hymns express disdain for the pre-Aryan Indians” (3).
Probably oral knowledge that had been brought by nobles interacted with the religion cults of the indigenous Hindu people and evaluated in what we know now as the Vedic literature through the centuries: ”Continuing synthesis of Aryan and non-Aryan religion structured around the Vedic tradition”(Hopkins 16). Thus the way of forming Hindu sacred texts was intricate but even despite of this fact the Vedas appear to be the only authority for all the diversity of Hinduism religions.
There is a number of other scriptures, such as epic novels Mahabharata (and the part of it – Bhagavad-Gita) and Ramayana, the Puranas, Upanisads (those are called Vedanta and are actually the culmination and evaluation of the Vedas); and besides these, like in any religion, there is a great variety of texts, written by saints (swami), gurus, and scholars of different traditions of Hinduism (for example, gurus Shankaracharja, Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Ramakrishnan).
These texts are usually the interpretations and explanations of the texts listed above. None of these texts is really recognized by all the Hindu religions. According to Hopkins: ”Once we move beyond the Vedas, there is no unanimity within Hinduism on authoritative scriptures”. When some texts are considered to be the quintessence of all the Vedic wisdom for one school (like Bhagavad-Gita for the devotees of the ISCON (International Society of Krishna Conciseness)), they are just a part of ancient Hindu literature for the others.
Furthermore, for the other texts, such as Puranas, there is no even the exact number of scriptures. The essences of different Puranas also differ as they are concerned with the worship of different deities and even the number of the deities to be worshipped is not the same (Hopkins). Therefore, as one of the main differences between the Hindu religious communities is the deity to be devoted to, there is no wonder that the authority of different Puranas varies.
The same can be said about the scriptures written by authoritative scholar of a particular religion school. Here again we face the question: who can be this authority? Obviously they are recognized within this particular religious community and can have no or little authority for the other schools’ adherents. Thus we can say, that authoritative texts in Hinduism are the Vedas and some other scriptures, recognized by a particular religion community together with works by the scholars who are also recognized in this community.
What else unities Hindu religions is the special view of the reality. According to Hindu views, our Universe is a material world that is only a little part of an infinite and eternal spiritual Universe. All the living creations in this material Universe have spiritual souls – atman – who came to this world by some reason.
In one of the Hindu schools – Vaisnavism – they say the atmans wanted to become as powerful as God – the infinite eternal absolute essence, or Paramatman (Superior Atman, who is at the same time personified as Vishnu, or Krishna, or Govinda, or many other personifications of God), and so atmans were given this material Universe to assure in their own non-superior essence and to release themselves from the ego-centric desire to become the Paramatman. Thus all the living creations from one-cell bacteria to a human and other living forms in the other planet systems are the same atmans with different material bodies.
The live creations are imprisoned in the everlasting samskara – the chain of births and deaths and rebirths in other life forms. The upper stage of this existence is human body that is intended for realizing one’s real spiritual self and founding the way back to God through different paths: ”each human life has but one ultimate end and purpose: to realize the Eternal Self within and thus to know, finally and fully, the joy of union with God, the Diving Ground of Being [Brahman] ” (Novak, 24). This way isn’t easy and seems to be unreachable during one’s present life at all.
The liberation from the circle of death and rebirth is called moksa: “Moksa, “release” from rebirth, was the supreme goal, but only a few could attain it in their present lives; for most men it was a goal to be reached in future births” (Hopkins 78). As the human life form is the only one that has consciousness, critical mind, can make choice in life and thus has to be responsible for this choices, it is the only one that is ruled by the law of karma that means, if explained in short: “you get what you deserve”.
The meaning of karma, as Hopkins explains, we can understand from the Upanishads, early Vedic texts (73). The social inequality, as Hindus believe, is one of he brightest examples of karma law accomplishment. Every person is born in the circumstances that he/she deserved through the previous life activity. Male or female body, social status, material status, initial abilities, and health are believed to be a reward or a punishment for the past choices.
The Hindu social order, – varnasrama-dharma – closely related to the religious imagination of the role and duties of people with different innate abilities, divides Hindu society into four main casts: The caste system grew out of Hindu religious literature known as the Dharma Shastras, which enumerates the duties (dharma) of four classes (varnas)… Under this system, Brahmans have the greatest duties, performing the rituals and teaching the knowledge of the oldest and most sacred of the Hindu scriptures, the Vedas.
Kshatriyas are warriors and rulers and are bound to the protection of others. Third are the Vaishyas, the merchant class, assigned to trading, lending money at interest, protecting cattle, and cultivating the land. These three classes also bear the duties of studying the Vedas, sacrificing, and giving gifts. The only duty of the lowest class, the Shudras, is to serve the other three classes. They are forbidden from studying the Vedas and are economically and ritually dependent on the other classes. (75-76).
As Hopkins describes in “The Hindu religious tradition” (64-73), Bhagavad-Gita points three main paths following which a person can release oneself from transmigration (the circle of deaths and rebirths). One of the ways back to God – excellent fulfilling of one’s own duties within some particular class together with a strict following all the prescribed rituals is called karma-yoga. Ritual activity is a very important part of the Vedic religion and especially for the one of the first schools of it – the Brahmanical system, or Brahmanism.
It is believed that anything in life (both present and future) can be reached with the proper rituals, which are the deities worship on one hand and ‘fee’ for the ‘good karma’ – on the other. According to Hopkins: ”The ability of the ritual to bring results was never questioned”(Hopkins, 35). Nevertheless for reaching moksa within karma-yoga one should fulfil all his social and ritual duties without any wish get positive results, without any material wish at all, but having concentrated his mind on God only.
(A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, V). The second path is jnana-yoga – the way for a very few selected individuals. This yoga requires the combination of rationality and spirituality together with a severe ascetic life in order to get all materials feelings and desires under the control. Jnani – that one who chooses this way – should thoroughly study all the sacred texts to find God through the knowledge and meditation (A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, VI).
Karma-yoga and jnana-yoga, which particularly required “high standards of purity for priests” (Hopkins, 30), were more suitable at the beginning of Hinduism and within the Medieval Age, when people’s abilities were better to follow the strict ritual and ascetic rules. The schools of Brahmanism (cult of priests who provided the connection between gods and people), and Tantrism (different schools of mystical and esoteric teachings) are the best to illustrate these two paths. The third path to God – bhakti-yoga, the way of love and devotion – is believed to be the easiest one, the best for the degenerated people of the present times.
According to Hopkins, the largest numbers of devotees are the devotees of Siva and Visny (87-89). It is really very difficult to tell about bhakti within a few lines since a large number of texts have been written about it. Bhakti – is a pure ecstatic love to God, and bhakti-yoga is the most beautiful, the most pleasant and happy way to God, to the World where “every word is a song and every step is a dance” (a very popular among bhaktas – the followers of the bhakti-yoga – citation that has probably become a folklore already).
Bhakti-yoga put one God in a center (usually Siva, Krishna, or Visny – the devotees of this God are called Vaisnavas and Vaisnavism is the particular religious school), and the whole aim of bhakta’s life is to reach the state of pure transcendental love to God, having overcome one’s material ego. Bhakti-yoga as a religious school originates from the teacher – Lord Caitania – who is believed to be Krishna’s avatar (incarnation) and to come to Earth to show the way of pure love to Lord. Nowadays the teaching of Lord Caitania is represented by the world religious organization ISKON found by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in the USA in the 1970th.
He was the guru from an authoritative guru parampara (guru-disciple line having been formed through many centuries). This parampara traces back to the early disciples of Lord Caitania (Hopkins). The ritual activity (which task is to help the devotee to concentrate his/her mind, the feelings, and desires on Lord all the time) as worship of Lord Krishna is very important for the life of bhakta (especially in the very beginning).
The important part of bhakta’s life is chanting mantras (that are mainly the names of God) and singing bhadjans – the religious songs, either compositions of the authoritative gurus or passages taken from sacred texts. As it is said in the introduction to the Bhagavad-Gita, in the times when people can neither follow all the ritual activity properly nor take all the feelings under control, bhakti-yoga is believed to be the best paths to God (A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami; IX).
Despite the fact that Hinduism represents the view of the reality that seems to differ totally from our ‘Western’ view, the essence of Hinduism nevertheless represents the same universal vision that unites all the world religions – there is the Reality above the one we are used to and, what is the oddest, this Reality is the place we all belong to; and the way to reach it lies through the human life with Lord as a center. Hindu religions believe these ways for different people can differ depending on the initial abilities of everyone: karma-yoga, gyana-yoga, bhakti-yoga – all are the paths to God.
To reach the upper Reality, Hinduism requires the severe following of the rules (established by the authoritative texts or leaders) of particular path one chooses (or one is destined to by having been born in certain social group) turning in such a way not only to the religion but also to the rules of Hindu society. Unfortunately, it is impossible to describe all the diversity, beauty of Hindu religious world within that short essay. A lot of significant details are left behind.
What was attempted to do is to picture the most important meanings of the Hindu religious reality. Nevertheless: ”You can study [Hinduism] for years with the best of teachers, and when you raise your head, nothing that they told you quite fits. ”(Forster, as quoted in Eck 11). .
1. A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Bhagavad-Gita as It Is. The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust reg. 1990. 2. Hopkins, Thomas. “A Comparative Look at the Issue of Authority”. ICJ. 8. 2 (2001). Online.ISCON. April 22 2005. 3. Hopkins, Thomas. The Hindu Religious Tradition. Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company. 1971. 4. Michaels, Axel. Hinduism: Past and Present. Translated by Barbara Harshav. Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004 . 5. Novak, Phillip. The World’s Wisdom: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions. San-Francisco: Harper. 1994. 6. Welbon, Guy. “Hindu Beginnings: Assessing the Period 1000 BCE to 300 CE” Education about Asia. 9. 2 (Fall 2004): 31-38.