When we talk about Hinduism there are many images that come flooding in our mind, millions of Gods, rites, rituals, sages and many more. Yet there are many people who would say it is not a religion, it’s a way of life that it doesn’t even have a name and the name that everything within the religion is symbolic. I wonder if there is any truth in these popular notions when like any other religion it is now institutionalized and riddled with malpractices, superstitions and shortcomings.
I present a short sequence of thoughts and findings to see what it could possibly be.
Universality of Caste System:
The moment discussion on Hinduism starts there are immediate questions raised about caste, caste system and the related oppression of certain class of people. I think these are misinterpretations that creep into popular practice and public psyche and develop strong inertia towards change. I quote two slokas or verses from the Bhagwad Gita and the Rig Veda, two books that are sacred to the followers of this religion.
In Bhagwad Gita Chapter 4 verse 13 Krishna says:
Catur-varnyam maya sristam guna-karma-vibhagasah,
Which means, ‘the four varnas were created by me and they are divisions based on qualities (Guna) and actions (Karma) of a person’ the caste of a person will be decided on the basis of his character and action and not by birth!
Athreya Smrithi Book 5 of Rig Veda says:
janmana jayate sudrah
samskarad bhaved dvijah
veda-pathad bhaved vipro
brahma janatiti brahmanah
Which means ‘everybody is born a Sudra (lowest caste), one who follows the samskaras or right action and thoughts one becomes re-born (dvijah), the one who reads the vedas becomes a learned person (vipra/vipro) and only the one who gains knowledge of the ultimate truth (Brahma or Brahman) becomes a Brahmin (brahmanah).
These two interesting verses from the two of the most sacred books, indeed bring out an universality of the philosophical thoughts embedded in them
Exploring further, there are three primary gunas or qualities identified –
Rajas – characterized by high energy levels, desires, passion, action, result oriented, industriousness
Tamas – characterized by indolence, laziness, lack of motivation, lack of desire
Sattva – Characterized by spiritual bent of mind, impassioned work, higher energy level, calmness, quiet confidence
I guess it isn’t difficult to see that men and women that demonstrate one or two or all three of such gunas, spans over all religious, geographical or political boundaries.
Universality in the stages of human life:
Furthering the understanding of the human behavior and the needs scriptures identify the need for a balanced life. Both material well-being and spiritual well-being are given equal importance. Thus the life span of a human is divided into stages.
Brahmacharya – the age of learning, accumulating knowledge, life-saving skills, and skills to assist in earning a living.
Grihasta – the age to settle into a family life and experience the bliss of camaraderie, companionship and material well-being.
Vanaprastha – the age to withdraw from active life and get into a reflective mode giving up material desire.
Sannayasa – the final stage of life where one gives up all material desires and devotes oneself to the quest of finding the truth. It is not action-less it is only selfless action and service and penance that mark this stage of life.
Again the stages of life described above have a universal appeal. It isn’t surprising then to see many of the richest and most successful, turning to philanthropic and altruistic activities towards the end of their career or during their retired life. Needless to say that the desires of youth wane with age and different priorities take their place.
I am no authority on this subject, however it is an effort to share whatever minimal I understood about why Hinduism is said to be ‘a way of life’ and why it is not a religion but an observation and recognition of human needs through various stages of life. The thoughts presented here are neither sufficient nor exhaustive to capture the complete essence of the subject.