What is the real foundation of Hinduism?
Hinduism can be sometimes confusing to one who sees a religion to preach one God, one Prophet and adherence to one sanctioned path of worship. Though Hinduism is broadly categorized as a religion, it is diverse, multi-faceted and consists of several paths, sects and denominations. Is there a central theme to Hinduism? What is at the real heart of Hinduism? What is Hinduism’s real philosophical foundation?
In Hinduism, we have so many Gurus, so many prophets, so many altars, so many names and forms of Gods, so many paths to reach the ultimate goal (God) and sometimes even the ultimate goal is also defined differently depending on the mental capacity of the seeker. Even within a Hindu family one can see varied religious practices. While the mother in a family may be a devotee of Shirdi Sai Baba, father could be dedicated to the path of yoga and the son an ardent follower of a contemporary Guru like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. To a non practitioner or novice of Hinduism, such features and practices can be quite confusing.
While considering the question “who are Hindus and what are the broad features of Hindu religion”, the Supreme Court of India highlighted Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s formulation of Hinduism’s defining features:
“Acceptance of the ‘Vedas’ with reverence; recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are diverse; and the realization of the truth that the number of gods to be worshipped is large, that indeed is the distinguishing feature of Hindu religion.”
Hindus see their religion as a vehicle to reach the ultimate truth and that they can accept many different sages, holy books and spiritual paths both inside their traditions and outside of them. According to the holy text Merutantra, the word Hindu is defined as “Hinani Gunani Dushyanti iti Hindu” meaning one who destroys one’s inferior qualities is a Hindu.
But what is the real philosophical foundation of this multi-faceted Indian way of religious living. The answer is not that complicated. It is the sacred knowledge of the supreme truth as pointed by Vedanta. Vedanta is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism which asserts that the goal of human life is to realize and manifest our divinity. Vedanta clearly defines who we are, what our life purpose is and how to achieve it.
So what is Vedanta? Vedanta refers to the ancient Vedic science of Self-Knowledge contained in the Upanishads. A closer look at the word “Vedanta” says it all: “Vedanta” is a combination of two words: “Veda” which means “knowledge” and “anta” which means “the end of” or “the goal of.” Basically Vedanta refers to the teachings usually located in the end portions (anta) of the Vedas i.e. the Upanishads. The term “Vedanta” has the literal meaning “the end portion of the Vedas” and refers to the teaching of the Upanishads which are the final part of the ancient Vedas.
Vedanta is fully developed in the Upanishads and synthesized in the Bhagavad Gita of Lord Krishna. The main Vedantic texts are: the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma or Vedanta Sutras – all of which are revered by all Hindu Gurus whichever sect (sampradaya) they belong to and whatever incarnation of Godhead they advocate worship of. The great sages of modern India were all Vedantins using the same Vedantic terminology of Self-realization and God-realization in their teachings. Some Gurus are more explicit about it. Some teach their unique path to the same goal taught by Vedanta. Vedanta is the oldest and most enduring spiritual teaching from India.
What does Vedanta say about ‘God’? According to Vedanta, God is ‘existence (sat), consciousness (chit) and ananda (bliss). Through this definition Vedanta says that Hinduism is entirely monistic believing only in the one all-pervading supreme, rather than many Gods. Those who criticize Hinduism as having many Gods are hasty to conclude and unaware of this fundamental all pervasive Vedantic definition of GOD. Says Paul Hourihan, the mystic American Vedanta teacher that
“Vedanta is one of Hinduism’s six main systems of thought. It is a scientific approach to religion and religious truth. There is no one individual associated with the origin of Vedanta. Every other creed was founded by an individual. Not Hinduism.”
What is Vedanta’s primary teaching? Vedanta affirms that all religions teach the same basic truths about God (Ishvara), the world (Jagat), and our (Jiva’s) relationship to one another. It is a system of philosophy which affirms that all reality is a single principle (God), and teaches that the believer’s goal is to transcend the limitations of self-identity and realize one’s unity with God.
Vedanta teaches that every soul is potentially divine, and that its divinity may be manifested through worship, contemplation, unselfish work, and philosophical discrimination. According to Vedanta, Truth is universal and all humankind and all existence are one. It preaches the unity of the Godhead, or ultimate Reality, and accepts every faith as a valid means for its own followers to realize the Truth.
The essential teachings of Vedanta are wonderfully summarized by Swami Vivekananda as
“Each soul is potentially divine, the goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling nature: external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or philosophy — by one, or more, or all these — and be free. This is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals, or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.”
In fact Swami Vivekananda was the world-teacher who first brought the message of Vedanta to the Western world. Vedanta was the message that he delivered at the Parliament of Religions in 1893.
According to Vedanta, religion is experience and not mere acceptance of certain time-honored dogmas or creeds. To know God is to become like God –‘Aham Brahmasmi’.