The image too many outsiders have of the Hindu tradition is of primitive, superstitious villagers worshipping idols. As we get to know the Hindus better, we’ll see that their understanding of who and what is God is incredibly sophisticated. In fact, their view of the world and our place in it is so stunningly cosmic in scope that our Western minds start to boggle!
Let’s enter the universe of Hinduism, an amazing world where inner and outer realities reflect each other like images on a mirror, and the loving presence of the divine is as close as the stillness behind your own thoughts…
You might think it takes a lot of chutzpah (if I may borrow a Jewish term) to claim that your religion is eternal. What Hindus mean when they say this is their tradition doesn’t come from any one founding father or mother, from any single prophet towering over the bastion of hoary antiquity. In fact, the first few verses of the Veda, an incredibly old book, parts of which were composed 6,000 years ago, acknowledge the sages who were already ancient to its composers living in 4000 B.C.E.!
Very old Hindu texts speak of a time when it became almost impossible to survive on Earth because of ice and snow. This could be a reference to the last Ice Age, some Hindu scholars believe. Archaeologists have unearthed small statues of goddesses from 10,000 years ago (that’s about the time the Ice Age was ending) like those being worshipped in Indian villages today. So even if we’re not willing to grant that Hinduism is eternal, we still have to admit it got a jump on the other major religions…
I’d really like to bring home to you the vastness of the time scale Hindus are talking about here. One area where Hinduism and Judeo- Christian tradition agree is in saying that at the moment we’re in the seventh day of creation. But according to the Hindu sages, a day for God is a bit longer than our human day of 24 hours.
The following schema was taught to me by Swami Veda Bharati, a renunciate who lives in a tiny ashram in Rishikesh in northern India. He’s a devotee of the Divine Mother. (The Goddess is a major league player in Hinduism, and you’ll soon see.)
Swami Bharati’s time frame, preserved in the Hindu mystical tradition, starts with a day and a night in the life of our local creator god. Years here mean human years:
– One day and night in the life of Brahma is 8,640,000,000 years.
– The lifetime of Brahma is 311,040,000,000,000 years.
– One day and night in the life of Vishnu equals 37,324,800,000,000, 000,000 years.
– The life of Vishnu is 671,846,400,000,000,000,000,000 years long.
– One day and night in the life of Shiva lasts 4,837,294,080,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000 years.
– Shiva’s lifetime corresponds to 87,071,293,440,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000 years.
– One glance from The Mother of the Universe equals 87,071,293,440, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
It might surprise you that Hinduism speaks of gods dying. Not to worry—they’re reborn again later like the rest of us! According to Swami Veda Bharati’s tradition, at any one moment there are trillions upon trillions of Brahmas, Vishnus, and Shivas manifesting their universes within the endless expanse of the Divine Mother’s awareness.
This, folks, is Hinduism’s Big Picture…
But the thought I’d like to leave you with is that for many millennia the Hindu sages have claimed that if we purify our minds with spiritual practices and open our hearts to learn from her, The Mother of the Universe begins to share her secrets with us.
In the West, we peer into space with powerful telescopes hoping to learn the origin of the universe. The Hindu approach is to couple astute observation of the world outside us with a self-disciplined inner journey. Peering into the depths of consciousness in our own minds, we connect with the consciousness that underlies the entire cosmos. Truths other cultures need radio telescopes to ferret out simply present themselves to our concentrated inward attention.
To India’s mystics, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are not just characters invented to make a good story. They represent actual states of divine awareness that are available to devotees, provided only that the devotee is prepared to do the spiritual work to access them.
In fact, in Hinduism the point of doing spiritual practices is to attain jnana, living knowledge of Divine Being. it’s an ambitious agenda! (Jnana means knowledge, specifically knowledge that you know in your soul, not just your brain. it’s related to the English words gnosis or gnostic.)…
The BIG Picture
Why did God create the universe? Hinduism offers several suggestions:
1. He was lonely. He looked around and saw He was by Himself. He desired to become many. And whatever God wants, God gets. The moment that wish entered His mind, an infinite number of souls emerged from His limitless intelligence to keep Him company.
2. She likes to play. The Goddess can’t sit still for a moment. She’s always got to be doing something. All these worlds are Her game, or”Her sport”As Hindus like to say.
3. The Divine Being is so brimming with bliss, He/She spills over. Shiva/Shakti (God and Goddess who are both two and one in Hinduism) spontaneously generate cosmoc after cosmos. Creative energy simply pours out of the Divine. it’s the nature of the Supreme One to create, as it’s the nature of light to shine.
In the Western religious traditions, God creates us out of nothing. In Hinduism, Divine Being creates us out of itself. This means we are literally one with the divine, one with everything else in the universe, and one with each other.
Hinduism is about finding our place in an immense universe. It shows us how to deal with suffering and where to find joy. It reveals how learning to know our own inner Self is the key to entering the consciousness of God.
In the Western world, until very recently, there’s been a tendency to consider Hindus”primitive”And”supertitious”because they believe there is a living spirit everywhere. What I hope you remember is that Hindu thought isn’t primitive at all. In fact it’s fantastically sophisticated. Hindus look at reality through a different lens than Westerners do, but in the context of Hindu culture, their understanding of who God is, how His laws operate, and what our position is in relation to him is just as insightful as the Western viewpoint.
The least you should know:
– The Hindu tradition is extremely mystical.
– Hindus consider their faith to be “The eternal religion.”
– Time doesn’t end; it spins on in cycles through eternity.
– Direct personal expereince of God is the purpose of life.
– Everything arise out of consciousness.
If you had been around in the third millennium B.C.E., India is where you would have wanted to be. The quality of life was higher there than practically anywhere else in the world. In fact, the towns of North India in 2600 B.C.E. were more comfortable and technologically advanced than most European cities till nearly the time of the Renaissance!
Religious life was vibrant in ancient India. Some of the oldest surviving spiritual writings came from this part of the world. They reveal a religion that was both boisterously earthy and transcendently mystical—not unlike Hinduism today.”
Linda Johnsen, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism,
Alpha; 1st edition (October 11, 2001) pp. 1-17
“Al Biruni Takes Notes
Al Biruni was born in Khwarizm (today’s Khiva in Uzbekistan) in 973 C.E. He was a brilliant astrologer and scholar who published books on optics, mineralogy, chemistry, mechanics, astronomy, mathematics, and the calendars and dating systems of many cultures.
Khwarizm was raided by the Muslim despot Abu-Said Mahmud in 1017. Al Biruni was taken to India as one of Mahmud’s reluctant human prizes, and lived there for 13 years.
Al Biruni despised Mahmud, who he complained wrecked northern India economically as well as killing Hindus “like specks of dust scattered every which way.” He found a good use for his time, however, in purchasing all the Sanskrit manuscripts he could find and consulted endlessly with Indian pandits about Hindu science and spirituality.
The result was the Indika, Al Biruni’s monumental study of Hindu culture and spirituality.
Notes on the Hindu God
Al Biruni was a good Muslim and was by no means always sympathetic to Hindu ideas or culture. He thought the Hindus’ claim that the universe was billions of years old was ludicrous, and mocked their tendency to think in terms of incredibly long cosmic cycles. But he made a sincere effort to report Hindu beliefs objectively, so that Muslims interested in India could clearly understand the Hindu perspective. In the Indika, Al Biruni described the Hindu view of God:
—There is one God only Who is without beginning or end. He cannot be reached by thought but is sublime beyond our ability to conceive. He is infinitely vast, but not in the spatial sense since He exists outside of time and space.
—How can we worship this one whom we cannot perceive? He lies beyond the grasp of the physical senses, but the soul feels His presence and the mind understands His divine qualities.
—Meditating on Him one-pointedly is true worship. When meditation is practiced for a long time without interruption, one attains the highest state of blissfulness.”
Notes on reincarnation
Al Biruni’s description of the Hindu view of reincarnation is particularly interesting:
Until it reaches the highest state of consciousness, the soul is not able to experience all things at once, as if there were no space or time. Therefore it has to experience the universe piecemeal, one thing at a time, until it has been through all possible experiences. An awfully lot of experiences are possible, so this process takes a very long time.
So immortal souls range through the universe in mortal bodies, which have good or bad experiences depending on whether their behaviour has been virtuous or evil. The purpose of experiencing heavenly states in the time between physical incarnations is so that the soul learns what is truly good, and wants to become as good as possible. The purpose of experiencing hellish states in the time between lives is so that the soul learns what evil is, and determines to avoid it all together.
The process of reincarnation begins at very low levels of consciousness, like minerals, plants or animals, and slowly winds its way upward toward very elevated states of awareness.
The process ends when the soul no longer desires to explore new worlds, but gains insight into the sublime nature of its own being, and rests content in itself. At that point the soul turns away from matter, and its links with physical existence are broken. It returns to its true home, carrying with it the knowledge it has gained during its many journeys.
Having closely studied all their systems, Al Biruni noted that the Greek, Indian and Sufi mystics taught essentially the same doctrine.
Linda Johnsen, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism,
Alpha; 1st edition (October 11, 2001) pp. 39-41