All theological traditions are diverse. But the beliefs and teachings that have been placed under the banner of Hinduism are especially diverse. So much so that it is perhaps not helpful to think of Hinduism as a unified system of belief. The reason for this comes from the history of British Colonialism on the Indian subcontinent. The world-view of the British was that every society must have a ‘religion’. The assumption, still prevalent, was that ‘religion’ is an a-historical, trans-cultural term that must be present in every society. The term ‘Hinduism’ was used by the British as a catch-all word for what were deemed ‘religious’ practices performed by the local population on the Indian subcontinent. This is akin to lumping together all non-abrahamic theological traditions of Europe under a single label like ‘Europism’.
The label has been something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, because the label stuck and over time commonalities have been emphasized more and more. Meanwhile, larger sub-strands of theology from the Indian subcontinent; Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, etc. have asserted their independence from the label ‘Hinduism’. Suffice it to say, the categories that were placed on different theological traditions around the world, have shaped how people imagine them over time. So much so that it is possible now to talk about Hinduism as if it were a unified tradition, which it is not.
In addition to this, as a catch-all for the non-abrahamic (esp non-Islamic) theological traditions of the Indian subcontinent, Hinduism has increasingly become an identity marker for many Indians since independence from British rule. This has fed into strands of thought such as Hindu-nationalism in India, which attempts to equate the Indian identity more tightly and exclusively with being Hindu.
The principle diversity in Hinduism is therefore found in it being a polytheistic tradition that contains within it monotheistic thinking. It is very much territorially bound, but at the same time holds a universal scope. The principle challenge in writing about it is finding commonalities in a tradition that is not one tradition, but many. It is to this task that we now turn.
What comes first: Consciousness or Materiality? Mind or Matter?
Other traditions have a clear answer to this. Abrahamic theology, with its monotheism states plainly that the consciousness of God exists before anything, subsequently creating everything out of nothingness. Humanist theology, as a polytheist tradition, argues instead for consciousness, animal and human, arising much later than the birth of the material universe.
Hinduism, perhaps unsurprisingly, does not have a clear answer to this question. Or it may be better to say that it has multiple, contradictory, answers to this question. There are many creation narratives from the Indian subcontinent, as there are in any region around the world. The fact that this ambiguity has been maintained in Hinduism makes it a fascinating blend of more monotheistic and polytheistic thought, as creation is in some ways both complete in the transcendent Ultimate reality that is Brahman, yet also on a different level ongoing, incomplete as the cycle of birth, life and death is played out on personal and cosmic scales as represented by the Trimurthi of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.
This creative tension speaks to a shared idea that there is not a definitive beginning to reality that is known about. Because even if there was a single ‘beginning’, even the gods were not present to witness it, so how could we possible come to know about it.
“Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?”
RV 10.129.6 (trans. O’Flaherty 1981)
Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty , The Rig Veda (1981).
From this, we can draw a complex image of the nature of reality. Reality as we experience it, is cyclical. But this does not necessarily mean that everything is fixed, spinning in place, because the ultimate reality is unknown. We share in both of these truths: we are permanent, yet in flux. How this plays out in the numerous Hindu traditions, can be explored through reference to specific concepts. That will be the focus of this page.
Brahman is the term that is used in major schools of Hindu thought to refer to the ultimate reality or truth, the ground of existence. That which is itself unmoved and permanent but the source of movement in everything that exists. It is therefore tied together with creation and ultimate purpose, the unlimited foundation upon which everything that is limited grows from and with.
Brahman is thus both transcendent and immanent, or neither. Which leads to the numerous, seemingly contradictory ways that Brahman is talked about in the various Hindu traditions. This is best seen in the distinction between Nirguna and Saguna Brahman:
- Nirguna Brahman refers to Brahman as being without qualities. It places Brahman beyond our abilities to conceive of things, and therefore argues that Brahman is not a ‘thing’ at all. Any attempt to point to Brahman will be met with failure, this is seen in the description of Brahman found in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad as neti-neti “not this! not that!” 2.3.6.
- Saguna Brahman refers to Brahman as possessing qualities. This is not in contrast with Nirguna Brahman, but in tension. It speaks to Brahman’s immanence, the idea that as Brahman is all encompassing it therefore can be found and conceptualised in particular forms. However, different schools of Hindu thought argue variously whether the Saguna Brahman is simply a lower form of Brahman that can therefore be conceptualised, or whether it is in actual fact an illusion.
This transcendence, associated with Brahman, is reflected in the concept of spiritual or celestial worlds; Vaikuntha. Vaikuntha perhaps best translates as ‘without anxiety’ and is thought of as a place beyond time and any material place. A place of pure harmony, peace, and bliss. Vaikuntha, in many Hindu traditions, is considered to be the home of the god Vishnu. But other traditions think of these worlds to be numerous and transcendent as they share in aspect the essence of Brahman.
The Three Feature of the Divine
The monotheistic concept of Brahman, the unified divine essence that pervades everything that exists and gives it meaning and shape, is joined by two other ‘aspects’ or features of divinity in some Hindu traditions. These ‘Three features of the divine’ give more conceptual grounding for how we might come into contact with divinity according to Hinduism.
- Brahman, as discussed, is seen to be everywhere and non-personal. Without a shape or form or definition that humans are able to fully grasp, thus making it necessary for it to take on different manifestations, which will be discussed below.
- Antaryami is understood as the divinity within each of us, it is distinguishable from Brahman as it is deeply personal to us. Understood as the divinity that is us and is constrained within us; also referred to as the ‘supersoul’ or the ‘Supreme Person’.
- Bhagavan is again distinguishable from Brahman because it is personal, but, in contrast to Antaryami, is the divine that is other or beyond. This aspect of divinity is outside materiality and is best translated as being endowed with unlimited wealth; lacking in nothing. This aspect of divinity can be met with and has a strong association with the concept of Vaikuntha, or Spiritual worlds, which are the home to various life-sustaining divinities.
It is important to note that while these three aspects of divinity may be experienced in different ways, that does not mean that they are essentially different from each other. Just as the power of the sun can be felt from how it brings light to the world, as well as the energy that is captured and transformed by every living thing, so the multiple ways that we experience divinity doesn’t mean that Hinduism teaches that there are multiple sources of divinity.
Trimurti and other deities
Brahman being utterly transcendent and impersonal, but the source for everything, is contrasted in Hinduism bycountless manifestations of divinity.
This is where we see the balance between monotheism and polytheism in Hinduism. Divinity is totally separate from humanity, and yet meets and blends with humanity in manifold ways in various hierarchies and pantheons; people, places, and objects.
The most important of these is the Trimurti, literally the ‘Three Forms’, refer to three of the most widely recognised and worshipped gods in Hinduism. Different groups recognise different gods as part of the three, some even argue that more than three should be recognised. But the most common and popular understanding of the Trimurti is that it refers to Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Alongside them in many traditions is the Tridevi, the three feminine forms of this divine triple: Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Parvarti, respectively.
- Brahma, not to be confused with Brahman, is associated with Creation. The various times that Brahma is mentioned in ancient texts vary widely in how he is portrayed. But some consistent themes emerge. He is often portrayed emerging from a Lotus flower, or from chaotic waters. He is also known as the creator of the four Vedas, the oldest sacred texts in the Hindu tradition, and is thus portrayed as having four arms and four heads each of which gave one of the four Vedas. He is associated with knowledge and creation for creations sake, connecting matter with spirit to create an incredible variety of things less for an overarching purpose and more as an expression of both supreme intelligence and boundless artistic playfulness. His female equivalent, Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music, education, art, and wisdom. A holiday closely associated with her, Vasant Panchami, is a Spring Festival that is often chosen as the time to start teaching children how to read and write for the first time.
- Vishnu, perhaps the most widely worshipped deity in India, is associated with the Preservation of creation. For this reason Vishnu is most commonly associated with Brahman itself and is often seen as the most powerful or at the most significant god. Vaishnavism, one of the major traditions within Hinduism, see Vishnu as the supreme being and primary aspect of Brahman. Many heroes of the various Hindu epics are seen as Avatars (see below) of Vishnu; most famously Rama and Krishna. Vishnu is seen as a protector deity, embodying the virtues of kindness and strength. He is portrayed with dark blue skin, adorned with a garland of flowers around his neck, and with four arms which hold a conch, a lotus flower, a discus, and a mace. His female counterpart, and wife, is Lakshmi. She is the goddess of prosperity, beauty, and good fortune. She is often thought, just like Vishnu to be represented by many Avatars throughout history, always alongside Vishnu as his consort or wife.
- Shiva, one of the most layered and complex divinities in Hinduism, is associated with Destruction, but also liberation, purity, and warding off evil. Shaivism, one of the major traditions within Hinduism, regards Shiva as the supreme being, the principal aspect of Brahman. Shiva is variously depicted as a warrior, a dancer, an ascetic, and a yogi, according to tradition the first practitioner of yoga. He is often depicted alongside animals, especially snakes and tigers, musical instruments and weapons. He is also often depicted with a third eye. His female counterpart, and wife, is Parvati. Parvati is the goddess of fertility, love, marriage, and divine power. Shiva and Parvati’s children include Kartikeya, the god of war, and Ganesha, the elephant god of intelligence, perseverance, and strength.
As is no doubt clear, the various manifestations of divinity in Hinduism are complex in how they interrelate; not just in the various myths and legends, but through their worshippers throughout history. The sheer variety and complexity of divinities speaks to a theological tradition that sees individual gods not necessarily as individuals, but as aspects of greater sources of divinity, sources that have been spread over time and space in successive ages and events. The story of which has been stitched together by members of various Hindu traditions to form a full sweeping view of the history of reality. It is to this that we now turn.
The story that Hindu theology tells is twofold. On the smaller scale we have increasing complexity and degradation over time as reality emanates from the divine essence, creating space and time as it spreads out into nothingness. Then as reality collapses on itself it is reborn as a new emanation or age begins. This gives us the grander scale view of Hindu cosmology which is a cycle of creation, preservation, then destruction; reflecting the Trimurti.
This cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth is prevalent in Hindu theology and highlights the relative insignificance of our world, because Hinduism teaches that the same thing is happening innumerable times on countless planets in various universes. These universes are diverse and perhaps unimaginable in their diversity. But we are told that our reality is divided into fourteen planets or lokas, layered seven above and seven below. The ones above are home to the gods and goddesses of Hindu theology. The ones below are home to primeval forces of chaos; dragons and serpents from the depths. In different versions of the cosmology there are different numbers of lokas, and we are either in the middle or the lowest of the upper lokas’. This is the ground upon which the epics of Hindu theology and mythology are played out. This is the space that the temporal cycles roll forward on.
The cyclic view of reality becomes particularly relevant later when we will talk about what Hinduism teaches about humanity. For now it is important to dwell a little longer on the implications of this grand cosmic cycle played out across reality in the legends and epic that form the backbone of Hindu scripture.
The Cycle of Ages
As the creator god, Brahma is also responsible for time, and in Hindu theology time also moves relative to him as well. The Cycle of Ages refers to sets of four ages called Yugas. A day for Brahma is a Kalpa, which relates to one thousand mahayugas, or cycles of four yugas. Within a mahayuga, each successive yuga, or age, in a set of four is of decreasing quality. They are Satya Yuga, Treta Yuga, Dvapara Yuga, and Kali Yuga.
In the Satya Yuga it is said that humans were gigantic, perfectly kind, and lived for thousands of years. There was no need to work because food and shelter appeared naturally. In the Treta Yuga, large empires were necessary to keep order, as crime arose for the first time. This age saw the birth of Agriculture, mining, and labour. In the Dvapara Yugahumanity has decreased in strength and virtue to the extent that they are constantly fighting and only live for a few centuries. It becomes necessary for the Vedas yo be introduced to guide people’s conduct.
The Kali Yuga, the final age, one of darkness, ignorance, and conflict, is the current age. Due to humanity’s lack of virtue societies constantly collapse. Humans are small and frail and do not live long. We continue to pollute and destroy our environment until the average lifespan is no longer than twenty years. This results in the end of the cycle of ages, and the end of the world.
To fight and delay the oncoming destruction, all ages have multiple examples of the gods entering our world in particular forms and helping with the fight against the inevitable degradation of reality. The theological concept that allows for this is what we turn to now.
Avatar and Murti
As reality emanates from Brahman, reality is infused with divinity, and so we see numerous examples of the divine interacting with the mundane in Hinduism. The term Avatar represents the most significant version for this in Hindu theology. ‘Avatar’ is an ancient sanskrit word meaning to descend; literally to cross over and come down. The closest theological concept outside Hinduism is probably incarnation, as it refers primarily to a divinity coming down and taking a physical body. However it should be noted that the terms are not interchangeable, and there are profound theological differences between the use of Avatars in Hinduism and the Incarnation in Christianity.
Here, we are talking about a divine power that is infinite taking on a finite shape or form in order to counter a specific evil or problem. For this reason it is perhaps no surprise that it is Vishnu, the preserver, for whom the concept of Avatars takes on more importance. Different traditions list different Avatars of Vishnu, and different numbers. Some Hindu traditions list ten Avatars of Vishnu, some over twenty. The most common ten that are named are as follows:
- Matsya. Vishnu took the form of a fish to save Manu from the deluge, or Great Flood, after which he takes his boat to the new world along with one of every species of plant and animal to restart life on earth.
- Kurma. Vishnu took the form of a tortoise to carry the weight of the world mountain; Mandara when it started to fall into the cosmic ocean due to the churning of the waters caused by gods and demons trying to get the elixir of immortality.
- Varaha, the boar. Vishnu, as Varaha the Boar fought against the Demon Hiranyaksha to save the world from being plunged into the depths of the cosmic ocean; eventually bringing the world back to the surface on his tusks.
- Narasimha. Vishnu took the form of a half-man / half-lion in order to kill the demon Hiranyakashyapa. Hiranyakashyapa could not be killed by man or animal, inside or outside a room, during day or night, on the ground or in the air, with a weapon that is either living or inanimate. Vishnu, as Narasimha, disemboweled Hiranyakashipu at the courtyard threshold of his house, at dusk, with his claws, while he lay on his thighs.
- Vamana, was a dwarf, and Avatar of Vishnu who reclaimed rulership of the three worlds; heaven, hell, and earth, from the benevolent demon Bali. Bali promised Vamana whatever he asked. Vamana asked for three paces of land. Due to Vamana’s size, Bali agreed. However, in his first step he covered all of earth, in the second he covered heaven. Bali realised that he was dealing with Vishnu’s Avatar and as Vamana prepared to step over hell, Bali offered his head as the third place to step. Vamana did exactly this and thus granted Bali immortality and made him ruler of hell. This is the last Avatar for Vishnu from the Satya Yuga, the first age.
- Parashurama was an axe wielding warrior. He was the first warrior-sage and created the region of Kerala by throwing his axe across India.
- Rama, the prince and king of Ayodhya, is one of the most famous of Vishnu’s Avatars. His exploits are the subject of the epic poem the Ramayana which is a classic of Hindu theology. Rama is the last Avatar for Vishnu from the Treta Yuga, the second Age.
- There is disagreement from here on about who makes the list of Vishnu’s Avatars, different lists exist. But most commonly the eighth Avatar is Krishna. Along with Rama, Krishna is the most popular of Vishnu’s Avatars, to the level that some groups replace Vishnu with Krishna as the deity above all the others on the list. His exploits are the subject of various myths and legends.
- Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna, is included as the eighth avatar of Vishnu in lists that either do not recognise the Buddha as the ninth Avatar, or ones that place Krishna above all others. In lists where Buddha is the ninth Avatar, this is the last Avatar of the Dvapara Yuga, the third age.
- Buddha: Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is commonly included as an avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism where he is praised as a teacher of compassion and respect for all life.
- In some places, particularly in the South and East India, Buddha is not recognised or respected as a teacher, and so others; Vithoba or Jagannath, most commonly are held as the ninth Avatar
- Kalki is the final incarnation of Vishnu, who appears at the end of the Kali Yuga. He is depicted riding a white horse with a drawn sword. He appears at the end times, when goodness has gone from the world, the Dharma has been lost, and ignorance reigns. Kalki is the one who ends the kali yuga and restarts another cycle of ages.
It is important to note that as the Cycle of Ages rolls and reality is further degraded, the avatars become smaller in scale matching the world they are born into. Also the increased confusion about who exactly is the Avatar of Vishnu well reflects the central teaching of the increased confusion that comes with the waning of the world. Also common is the idea that we are in the final age and the next Avatar of Vishnu, Kalki, will be the last; a final lawgiver who comes amidst a period of great destruction and the end of the current Cycle of Ages.
Avatars are one way that the divinities of Hinduism are able to enter into the stream of reality as humans experience it. It is not limited to Vishnu, and it not always brought on by some major conflict or struggle. The gods and goddesses in Hinduism are thought to be present in the lives of their worshippers in numerous ways, and the concept of Avatars represents just one such way. Another is Murti, or manifestation.
Murti is quite a broad term and can refer to lots of different things, but at its essence any solid object that reflects or symbolises the image of a divinity. These icons are not gods and goddesses themselves, but due to the fact that they share in the divine image that is associated with the god, they form a meeting place between the divinity and their worshippers. They focus the attention of worshippers, and can be found in Hindu temples across the world. Their creation needs to follow precise steps if it is to properly reflect the image of the divinity in question. As such ancient manuals are followed, based upon descriptions given in the scriptures. Some Murti are themselves ancient, because if the manuals are followed they become sacred objects, reflecting not just the likeness of the god or goddess in question, but the universal Brahman in which they partake.
This concept of the supreme transcendent divine essence being present in the world is central to how Hinduism understands humanity. In fact the Cosmology of the transcendent Brahman and the Trimurti is reflected in each individual human according to Hindu theology.
Prakriti refers to matter or nature, and it is that which everything is made out of. It holds three innate qualities that further define its form. These three qualities, tri-gunas, are:
- Sattva is the quality of balance, harmony, goodness, purity, universal-ism, holism, construction, creativity, positivity, peacefulness, and virtue.
- Rajas is the quality of passion, activity, neither good nor bad and sometimes either, self-centeredness, egoism, individualization, drivenness, movement, and dynamism.
- Tamas is the quality of imbalance, disorder, chaos, anxiety, impurity, destruction, delusion, negativity, dullness or inactivity, apathy, inertia or lethargy, violence, viciousness, and ignorance
Everything is determined by the interplay of these characteristics, but in each person lies Atman. This is the essence of the individual, their true-self, distinct from their material mind and body; it relates to Brahman. Coming to know the true self is therefore tied to developing a greater understanding of Brahman. This is the context that we need in order to engage with what Hinduism teaches as the aim of life.
Maya and Samsara
Ultimately, the only thing that really exists in Hindu theology is Brahman. Reality is unified in Brahman, Atman is the individual’s perspective on this unified reality, and therefore the comprehension that the individual is not separate from but unified with Brahman. In this way the existence of “I” or “Me” and the ego that comes with this is an illusion. This is where the concept of Maya comes in.
Maya is close to the word for ‘Magic’ and is often translated as illusion. In this context it refers to the grand illusion of the world around us. The way we experience reality runs in contradiction to the central truth of Hinduism that everything is one. We separate things out and place them in causal relations with each other in order to make sense of them. This chain of cause and effect does not run in a line, as it appears to us, but a circle. The cyclical nature of time and reality are known as Samsara. It is the mundane, endless movement of birth leading to life, leading to death, leading to rebirth.
The action that drive this causal cycle are called Karma. We tend to think of this as a moral principle, but it refers to all action and the law of karma simply states that like causes bring about like effects. Bad experiences that we feel in the flow of Samsara were caused by previous bad actions, just as good experiences were caused by good. We may not be able to see the full flow of cause and effect, but the endless nature of Samsara dictates that, at least eventually; what goes around comes around.
Puruṣārtha and Moksha
In this context Hinduism teaches its adherents that there are four aims of human life.
- Dharma is a complex term that can be understood best as the proper way of living. This is fundamentally moral in outlook and is often divided into two parts: sanatana dharma is unchanging and linked to Brahman; whereas varnashrama dharma is following the teaching relative to a specific age; Sacred texts and teachings and the example of divinities, indeed Hinduism itself, are all examples of this. A key concept here is Ahimsa, respect for life.
- Artha is connected to material prosperity, but it isn’t about being rich so much as having what you need. It means different things to different people but it is connected to economic security and the ability to provide for yourself and others.
- Kama is all about pleasure. It is a celebration of everything that is beautiful in life, aesthetic value. It incorporates everything from appreciation of art and food, to sex, to the joy taken in a good friendship. It, again, means different things to different people, and is held in tension with both Dharma and Artha.
- Moksha is understood as the emancipation from the cycle of Samsara. The ultimate self realisation of the Atman and the recognition of the unity of everything.
There is widespread disagreement on the relationship or potential hierarchy, especially between the first three aims. However, one thing is widely accepted, that Moksha, the fourth goal, is the ultimate aim. Moksha refers to liberation from the illusion of Maya, and the ultimate recognition of one’s Atman and the subsequent realisation of the unity of everything in Brahman. In many Hindu traditions it is thought that Moksha is only attainable through the other three aims. The first three aims are to be held in balance, under an appreciation that Moksha is the ultimate aim, even if the illusion of Maya and Samsara has not yet been broken for the individual.
It is through mastery of certain practices that Hinduism teaches we are able to properly balance the aims in life and achieve self-realisation and liberation. This, like most things related to Hinduism is complex and contested. The difficult task of presenting the similarities and differences within and between Hindu practices is the focus of our next page.