How much do you know about Hinduism? And about Zen or Buddhism? Most importantly, can we really understand modern-day Yoga without knowing about these traditions?
Though we regularly write about Yoga and other conscious-living topics, in our more than two years of blogging history we have not included any specific entries dealing with the most relevant aspects about some of the belief systems and traditions most directly connected with them. To remedy that, this will be the first of a series of easy entries on ‘Eastern Belief Systems’ meant to expose basic information about the relationship between philosophy, spirituality, life, religion, and Yoga, one Eastern stream at a time.
Monkey-heads, Third Eyes, and Snake Arms: Hinduism
If there is one system out there where the line separating where philosophy begins and religion ends gets blurrier and blurrier as you proceed, that’s in Hinduism. With a history spanning thousands of years and influencing all spheres of life in India and Southeast Asia –from these countries’ politics, to their social structure, culture, worldview, and intellectual life– Hinduism surfaces precisely out of the intersection between religion and philosophy as these two disciplines endeavor to find suitable answers to the enigma of what they would call 'leading a dharmic life.'
Indeed, Hinduism has as many ceremonies, rituals, branches, sects, gods, gurus, and goddesses as there’s individuals in the world, so it is per se defined by a complexity and variety hard to pin down in words. This is perhaps the reason why Hinduism is so ‘diverse’ –where the word ‘diverse’ is meant to be read as an easy way of saying that its expressions range from super elaborate intellectual philosophical discussions of poetic depth and rhetorical insight, to the most mundane, even naive rituals practiced by common people out of sheer habit on the daily.
Its roots are found on the famous Vedas, a series of classical texts we have mentioned in passing in previous entries, which lay the foundation of pretty much anything you’ve ever heard about Yoga. Vedanta, or Ayurveda in the West. These texts were passed down to ‘us’ by so-called Seers: experienced meditators with the ability to tap into ‘Source’ and translate unbound ideas of utter spiritual importance into (Sanskrit) word.
To say that the Vedas are as old as the world is a bit of an exaggeration, but one that helps in illustrating how ancient and important to Hinduism (and Yoga) these scriptures really are. Written somewhere between 1500 and 500 B.C., these scriptures, which were passed down orally at first in the form of mantras, poems, hymns, and prayers, are still regarded as the foundational texts not only of Yoga and of India, but also of Hinduism.
The Vedas were generally divided into sections or parts, some containing prayers, mantras, and rituals, and lastly, the (in)famous Upanishads: the section of the Vedas spanning not just the philosophical and spiritual breath of Yoga, but practical ways of applying the depth of knowledge of these scriptures into daily life.
It is the Upanishads that have influenced Hinduism the most, containing the essence of Yogic spirituality at their core. And to make those spiritual (not yet religious) ideas understandable for people of all walks of life, their content was once transformed into vivid fables, tales, and epics such as the Mahabharata (Bhagavad Gita) where humans and gods alike go through the moves of living a spiritually (un)sound life to serve as example for us. So the Vedas can be defined as the foundational texts of India’s rich mythology, as well as a vast resource of profoundly philosophical-religious thought. And it is in because of this that most of us have a somewhat confused idea about Hinduism and Yoga, unable to tell the one apart from the other because of the many references to myth and scripture both accustom to utilize.
One for All and All for One
Despite the myriad goddesses and gods populating Hindu thought and, as a result, all sorts of temples and places of worship in India and beyond, the main message of Hinduism is quite simple. It's one of union, of Oneness, of the absolute and fundamental unity of it all. Hindus call this principle ‘Brahman’: Absolute Oneness, the 'heart' or 'soul' of it all if you want. You can think about it as the beginning and end of everything you both know and don’t (yet) know, as the point of origin and very limitation of your own thinking, or simply, as another term for God. It is in this regard that Hindu thought sort of crosses over the very deceptive boundary separating philosophy and religion –which is something we have already written about before.
That often, across religions, this notion of ‘Oneness’ be anthropomorphized (aka, given human form) is no coincidence, as most of us have a hard time thinking abstract. This explains why myths, fables and epics such as the Gita have such a clout still today, being a very popular way of disseminating spiritual, philosophical, and religious ideas amongst 'the masses.' They make complex ideas approachable and relatable and, sometimes, even fun. Still, the actual point of Vedic scripture is getting at the heart of that ‘absolute something’ and not necessarily related to the specific look, or feel, or actions of the particular deity that may have come to stand for it on a particular version of a story.
Hence, the main point in Hinduism is that all these different gods, and goddesses, and heroes with their respective colors, ornaments, mantras, and characteristics, are but different aspects, expressions, or manifestations if you prefer, of the very same 'absolute reality' and 'divine principle': that of Oneness, Brahman, Ishvara, God. You get the gist of it, right?
This universal principle, then, finds expression in manifold ways, some of which also boil down to us. And this is precisely where things get quite elaborate and complicated, and where the notions of Atman (individual or human soul), life force, Maya, Karma, Moksha and Kundalini, the Chakras, Nadis, and other terms key to Yoga, come into play.
Still, the objective of it all is no other but to help us wake us up from the pervasive sleep of illusion we ‘think’ we inhabit (Maya) and thus access pure seeing and pure being as one with the truth connecting and ‘joking’ (Yoga) it all. That’s where actual freedom –as in liberation or Moksha– is said to ultimately reside, and where informed and dharmic Yoga as a teaching and a form of practice should eventually take all of us.