Hinduism is an inner experience; it is the experience of the soul. Hinduism is not a religion. It is the name of a culture: a self-disciplined, spiritual culture. The word "religion", in fact, is not to be found in the dictionary of a Hindu. His dictionary houses the word dharma. Dharma, no doubt, includes religion, but its long arms stretch far beyond the usual conception of religion. Dharma means the inner code of life, the deeper significance of human existence. Dharma is a Sanskrit word which derives from the root dhri, to hold. What holds man is his inner law. This inner law is a divine, all-fulfilling experience that frees man from the fetters of ignorance even while he is in the physical world.
Religion, on the other hand, is derived from the Latin verb ligare, to bind. The ancient Romans saw religion as a force which binds and controls man. But the ancient Indian seers felt that religion, nay, dharma, must release man from that which binds him, that is, his own ignorance. Man's awakened consciousness must do away with ignorance, or to be precise, must transform ignorance into the knowledge of Truth.
Sri Aurobindo says:
Dharma is the Indian conception in which rights and duties lose the artificial antagonism created by a view of the world which makes selfishness the root of action, and regain their deep and eternal unity. Dharma is the basis of democracy which Asia must recognise, for in this lies the distinction between the soul of Asia and the soul of Europe. Through Dharma the Asiatic evolution fulfils itself; this is her secret.
In days of yore, Hinduism was known as the Arya Dharma. Strangely enough, even now people are not quite sure from which part of the globe the Aryans entered India. Some, indeed, are of the opinion that the Aryans did not come from outside at all. Swami Vivekananda heads the list of these firm believers.
The origin of the word "Hindu" is very strange. It is closely associated with the river Sindhu, the present Indus. But the ancient Iranians, who desired to call the Aryans by name of the river on which they lived, pronounced it "Hindu." The Aryans seemed to like the name and we, who are their descendants, are enamoured and proud of the name "Hindu."
Hinduism or the Hindu Dharma is found on the spiritual teachings of the Hindu seers. The Hindu shastras, or scriptures which govern Hindu life and conduct, are illumined and surcharged with the light and power of the hallowed teachings of these ancient seers.
Many are the Hindu shastras. Each has made a singular, powerful contribution to the whole. The oldest and foremost of all these are the Vedas. They are considered the oldest written scriptures to have appeared since the dawn of civilisation. The other scriptures have the Vedas as their only fount. The Vedas have another name, Shruti, that which is heard. They are so called because they are based on direct revelation. The authority of the Vedas rests on direct, inner spiritual experience that stems from divine Reality. A Hindu feels in the inmost recesses of his heart that to doubt the inner experiences of the Vedic seers is to doubt the very existence of Truth. Vid, to know, is the Sanskrit root of the word Veda. Veda actually means the Knowledge of God. As God is infinite, even so is His Knowledge. We observe in the Vedas, with surprise and delight, that the Truth discoveries are infinitely more important than the Truth discoverers. Unfortunately, the order of the present day is the reverse. The Vedas are four in number: Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda and Atharva Veda. Each of the Vedas consists of two sections: Samhita and Brahmana. Samhita contains the hymns or mantras, while Brahmana expounds their significance and appropriate application.
All the other Hindu shastras, other than the Vedas proper, are known as Smritis. Smriti literally means anything that is remembered. The Smritis cherish their great indebtedness to the Vedas. They are proud of the fact that they own their authority to the Vedas and to the Vedas alone. They have traditionally exercised great authority in laying down social and domestic laws, plying their boat between the shores of Vidhi, injunctions, and Nishedha, prohibitions in Hindu society.
Now let us focus our attention on the Upanishads. Upa means near, ni means down, shad means sit. Upanishad refers to pupils sitting at the feet of their teacher, learning their spiritual lessons. The Upanishads are the philosophic and reasoned parts of the Vedas. They are also called Vedanta, end of the Vedas. There are two reasons for this. One is that they actually appear towards the end of the Vedas; the other is that they contain the spiritual essence of the Vedas, which is all Light and Delight. The actual number of the Upanishads still remains unknown. One hundred and eight have been faithfully preserved. Of these the most significant are Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundakya, Aitareya, Chhandogya, Brihadaranyaka and Svetasvatara.
God-realisation abides in meditation, never in books. This is the supreme secret of the Upanishads. The sages and the seers in the Upanishads asked their pupils to meditate, only to meditate. They did not even advise their students to depend on the Vedas as an aid to realising God. "Meditate, the Brahman is yours! Meditate! Immortality is yours!" At the beginning of the journey of the human soul, the Upanishadic seers cried out, Uttisthata jagrata ... "Arise, awake, stop not until the Goal is reached." At the journey's end, the same seers cried out once again, Tat twam asi, "That Thou art."
Now let us come to the Sad-Darshana, the Six Systems of Indian philosophy. These are the various schools of thought later introduced by some of the Hindu sages. The sage Jaimini's system is called Purva Mimansa; others are Vyasa's Uttar Mimansa or Vedanta, Kapila's Sankhya, Patanjali's Yoga, Gotama's Nyaya and Kanada's Vaisheshika. If one studies the Nyaya first, then it becomes easier to fathom the other systems of thought.
All of the Six Systems were written in sutras or aphorisms. The sages did this because they wanted not to expound the philosophy, but to express in the briefest possible sentences their soul-stirring revelations and to have these engraved on the memory of the aspirant. Through the passage of time, the aphorisms have been significantly adorned and armoured with countless notes and commentaries.
It is high time for us to invite Professor Max Muller to join us in today's momentous journey:
If I were to look over the whole world to find out the country most richly endowed with all the wealth, power and beauty that nature can bestow — in some parts a very paradise on earth — I should point to India.... If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life and has found solutions to some of them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied Plato and Kant — I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself from what literature we here in Europe, we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on the thought of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the Jewish, may draw the corrective which is most wanted in order to make our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in fact more truly human, a life not for this life only, but a transfigured and eternal life — again I should point to India.
To walk along the royal path of the Six Systems of Philosophy is difficult. That path is for the learned and the select few. The common run needs an easier path. It is here that the Puranas come into the picture. The Puranas teach us the Hindu religion with inspiring and thought-provoking stories, anecdotes and parables. The Puranas present Hinduism in an easy, interesting, charming and convincing manner. The major difference between the Vedas and the Puranas is that the Vedic gods represent the cosmic attributes of the One, while the Puranic gods represent His human attributes.
Now the Bhagavad Gita or the Song Celestial demands our immediate attention. It is the scripture par excellence. The Gita is the life-breath of Hinduism. The Gita not only tells us to realise God, but it also tells us how. The Gita introduces three principal paths towards God-realisation: Karma Yoga, the path of action; Jnana Yoga, the path of knowledge; and Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion. Emotional devotion and philosophical detachment not only can but must run abreast to fulfil the Divine here on earth. This sublime teaching of the Gita knows no equal. Without hesitation, a devout Hindu can say that the Gita has been the solace of his whole life and will be the solace of his death.
Certain people are heartily sick of our rituals and rites. To them, these are nothing but cheap, confused and showy affairs. But the critics will have no choice but to revise their opinions when they come to know why we perform rituals. Needless to say, we want spirituality to govern our lives, both inner and outer. Without purity of the mind, there can be no true spirituality. And for those who want purity, the performance of rituals is often an invaluable necessity. We know that when the mind is pure, illumination dawns. The subtle truths that lie beyond the range of our senses enter into our consciousness directly through the pure mind. Participation in rituals greatly aids this process. Granted, rituals are externals. But we have to know that it is the externals that bring home the truth to individuals. Rituals eventually touch the very core of our consciousness. Rituals permeate every aspect of Hindu life.
Rites, too, have been in vogue since the days of the Atharva Veda. Rites, if performed with an inner urge and an aspiring heart, can help us considerably to conquer the hostile forces, avert untold misfortunes and fulfil life in its divine plenitude. Indeed, this is the divine attitude. The fear of a spiritual fall threatens us only when we use the rites, or rather the magic or lesser rites, to gain selfish and undivine ends.
A word about images and symbols. We do not worship images and symbols. We worship the spirit behind them. This spirit is God. It is so easy to feel the presence of God in and through a concrete form. Through the form, one has to go to the Formless; through the finite, to the Infinite.
We worship nature. Others smile at our folly. We laugh at their ignorance. Why do we worship nature? Because we have discovered the truth. We have discovered the truth that God manifests Himself not only through nature but also as nature. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever", said Keats. Beauty is soul. Soul is all joy. A Hindu seeker cannot separate the aspiration of nature from the beauty and joy of the soul. Nature's aspiration and the soul's delight together create an all-loving, all-embracing and all-fulfilling perfect Perfection.
"Look at the zenith of Hindu folly"! the critics say. "For of all things in God's creation, a Hindu has to worship animals, trees, even snakes and stones." Alas, when will these men of so-called wisdom come to learn that we do not worship the stones as stones, the snakes as snakes, the trees as trees and the animals as animals. What we do is very simple, direct and spontaneous. We worship the Supreme in all these; nothing more and nothing less. With this attitude a Hindu desires to worship each and every object of the world, from the largest to the tiniest.
Let us speak of the caste system, which has been an object of ceaseless criticism. What is caste? In the deepest sense of the term, caste is unity in variety. No variety, no sign of life. Variety is essential to the cosmic evolution. All individuals cannot have the same kind of development: physical, vital, mental or spiritual. Neither is such similarity imperative. The thing of paramount importance is that each individual be given infinite opportunity and freedom to develop along his own line of growth.
In this lofty ideal, there is only one idea: to serve and be served. Each individual has his rightful place in this ideal. The caste system is to be regarded like the functioning of one's own limbs. My feet are in no way inferior to my head; one complements the other. Brahmin (priest, teacher and law-maker), Kshatriya (king and warrior), Vaishya (merchant, trader and agriculturist) and Shudra (labourer, servant and dedicated hand) are all united by their mutual service. Caste is not a division. It embodies the secret of proper understanding. And it is in proper understanding that we fulfil ourselves fully. A Hindu feels this sober truth.
True Hinduism abjures all that divides and separates. It dreams of the Supreme Truth in absolute freedom, perfect justice in all-embracing love and the highest individual liberation in unconditional service to humanity.
Hinduism gives due importance to all the spiritual figures of the world. It recognises a great harmony in their teachings. Down through the ages, the firmament of India has sent forth the message of Peace, Love and Truth. It has fostered and encouraged the synthesis of all world religions. Further, Hinduism has always affirmed that the highest end of life is not to remain in any particular religion, but to outgrow religion and realise and live in Eternal Truth.
Hinduism is the embodiment of certain lofty, infallible ideals. These ideals within us live and grow, grow and live. Because of this fact, Hinduism is still a living force. It lives to lead. It leads to live.
To know Hinduism is to discover India. To discover India is to feel the Breath of the soul. To feel the Breath of the soul is to become one with God.