Introductory Hinduism – Practice and Guidelines

We know Hinduism as the third largest religion on earth. But already here we are wrong in a certain way, because as a unified and closed religious system it was initially only interpreted by Europeans. So there is no such thing as one Hinduism.

1.      First testimony of the Indo-Aryans – The Vedas

2.     What is in the Vedas?

3.     Scriptures of Hinduism

4.     Vedanta and Upanishads

5.     Brahman and Atman

6.     I am God, I am everything

7.     Karma, samsara, moksha

8.     The Indian caste system

1.      What is the written basis of Hinduism?

2.     What other scriptures are there and what is their meaning?

3.     What are Atman and Brahman?

4.     What is the meaning of the terms samsara, moksha and karma?

5.     What guiding insight does the Vedanta philosophy come to and what follows from it?

First testimony of the Indo-Aryans – The Vedas

In the first part of the introduction to Hinduism, we took a closer look at a number of the basics of the terms Hinduism, religion and differentiation, as well as highlighting some misunderstandings and finally historical basic data. This second part is about getting a direct insight into the practice, scriptures and philosophy of Hinduism.

The fact mentioned towards the end of the first article that the Indian and thus Hindu culture did not begin with the arrival of the Aryans, but that high cultures already existed before, is actually only half correct. With their first and most important religious testimony, the Veda (sacred knowledge), the Indo-Aryans form the cornerstone of the spiritual wisdom of Hinduism. Andreas Becke writes:

The Veda forms the eternal, infinite, beginningless truth. It is the knowledge of the human powers and their magical influence. [1, p.34]

The Vedas are a kind of collection of hymns, i.e. a series of religious texts initially passed down orally and later fixed in writing, which, among other things, also describe the settlement history of the Aryans. The first parts of the Vedas come from the time when the Aryans still lived on the Upper Indus, while the later parts come from the time when they had already penetrated into the Ganges plain [1, p.33].

It can be assumed that the Vedas represent a knowledge that the Aryans had in part even before their entry into the Indian subcontinent. The only thing that is historically certain is that between 1200 and 1000 BC the Vedas were already part of a tradition, especially since they tell of the settling down in Punjab at that time.

In addition to all sorts of historical frameworks, the Vedas also contain several creation myths, various ideas about numerous gods and sometimes contradicting views of the cosmos. This oldest Hindu script is generally divided into four parts, which are called Samhita :

  1. Rig-Veda– Veda of Verses, the most important collection
  2. Sama-Veda– Veda of the chants
  3. Yajur-Veda– Veda of the sacrificial formulas
  4. Atharva-Veda– Veda of Magic

What is in the Vedas?

Since the Vedas were initially exclusively orally transmitted chants, error-free recitation has always been extremely important. To this day, many priests (Brahmins) are skeptical of the book printing of Vedic traditions, because it undermines the traditional and living tradition. Of course, their mistrust could not prevent them from being passed on in writing [2].

The oldest collection of the Rig-Veda, which has been compiled since the 9th century BC, is the starting point for the Vedas. It consists of 10 books and contains 1028 hymns (Ric). The first and tenth books are of particular interest because they already contain philosophical speculations and social teachings [1, p.34].

For example, the box order is mentioned there for the first time. In addition, the tenth book contains a famous metaphysical interpretation of the origin of the universe, which the Indologist Paul Thieme has summarized in the following way: Thought is something that is that breaks out of that that does not exist  [3].

1 Non-existent non-being, there was also a being at that time – space did not exist, nor did the sky beyond it. What enclosed? Where? In protection from what? Did the water exist? No, just a deep abyss!

2 Death did not exist, including life. There was no sign of the night (moon and stars), the day (the sun) – it breathed (began to breathe) without wind, through its own strength there was only one thing. Nothing else existed beyond this.

3 darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning. This universe was unmarked salt flood. The germ covered by emptiness was born (came to life) only by the power of a (brood) heat.

4 A desire (after the creation) was formed in the beginning, which first existed as a seed of thought. Thus the umbilical cord (the origin) of being in non-being, the poets now found out, searching in their hearts through reflection. [4]

The Vedic scriptures are indeed the main block of Hinduism, but at the same time they do not mention many of the main philosophical elements of Hinduism as it is actually lived. These include the concepts of rebirth and redemption as well as asceticism and flight from the world – none of them are mentioned in the Vedas because they were first developed in the late Vedic period (800-200 BC).

Scriptures of Hinduism

The Vedas are at the core of Hinduism as inviolable truths, even as a revelation of the divine. In addition, the environment of Vedic literature includes a large number of other writings, such as the Brahmanas (interpretations of the Vedas), the Aranyakas (esoteric forest books) and the very important Upanishads (a kind of secret teaching) [1, p.33].

Aside from this superhuman revelation knowledge, which was “seen” by the seers (Rishis), there is also a whole series of writings in Hinduism that come from human authors. These include, for example, the sutras (guides), the Puranas (myths of gods) and the extensive folk epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata together with the famous Bhagavadgita. Mahatma Gandhi commented on this as follows:

In the Bhagavadgita I find a consolation that I myself miss in the Sermon on the Mount. When disappointment sometimes stares me in the face, when I leave and see no ray of light, I take up the Bhagavadgita. Then I find a verse here and there and I start smiling amidst all the tragedies and my life has been full of tragedies. If none of them left any visible wounds on me, I owe it to the teachings of the Gita. [5]

Vedanta and Upanishads

The clearest expression of Hindu thought can be found in the collection of scriptures known as the Upanishads. This expression is made up of upa (near), ni (down) and shad (sit) and describes the distribution and teaching method that is subject to this philosophical core of Hinduism. [1, p.38]

The Upanishads were traditionally always seated at the feet of the gurus, i.e. the so-called teachers, and are part of the Vedanta. This denotes the completion of the Veda through its interpretation.

The Upanishads brought about a radical spiritual upheaval in India, which between 750 and 550 BCE shaped all religiosity and philosophy. The texts of the Upanishads now for the first time mention the thought of transmigration of souls, the doctrine of rebirth and the karma theory – all essential views that one cannot imagine the teaching of Hinduism without.

During the Upanishad period, it also became more common for individuals to give up social life and move to the forest (metaphorically as well as practically). In this way one can indulge in asceticism and meditation undisturbed, which has been considered exemplary in India for a long time.

Brahman and Atman

The philosophy and attitude to life in Hinduism are determined by these two terms in every respect. Brahman is the creative world principle, the world spirit from which everything has emerged, even the original ground of everything that is [1, p.39]. Brahman was the world in the beginning, is the creator of the cosmos and at the same time the cosmos itself. It created the gods out of itself and placed them above the world [6].

Atman, on the other hand, is the eternal, inner self or the individual soul, i.e. the substance that makes up my identity. Incidentally, this reveals a serious difference between Hinduism and Buddhism, since the latter denies the individual, eternal self. This atman is described in the Upanishads as follows:

This my Atman inside the heart is finer than a grain of rice or barley or mustard or millet or the grain of a millet grain. This Atman of mine in the interior of the heart is greater than the earth, greater than the air-space, greater than the sky, greater than the worlds. It is all-active, all-wishing, full of every scent, full of every taste, all of this embracing, wordless, even careless. This Atman of mine in the interior of the heart is the Brahman, to which I will come after my departure from here. To whom there is such certainty, there is no doubt.

I am God, I am everything

In contrast, the Abrahamic religions have a completely different view of man. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, every human being is the servant of God. The Vedanta philosophy together with the Upanishads, on the contrary, emphasizes the substantial unity of the individual self and the absolute mind. Like the drop in the sea, so is Atman in Brahman. This atman-Brahman, without attributes, is the sole being, the being of all that is. [1, p.40]

Behind what we experience of the world through the senses and behind space and time itself, there is a final identity that is timeless, immortal and unchangeable. What prevents people from recognizing this identity of self and absolute spirit is the great illusion Maya which also prevents us from finding salvation.

Since the world is Brahman, one is also Brahman oneself – this is the only reality and the solitude teaching of Vedanta: Atman = Brahman. That is why the famous formula is used in the Upanishads:

Karma, samsara, moksha

What actually happens to the eternal self, the Atman after the death of a person? In Hinduism one takes the view that after death a person – depending on all his good or bad deeds, karma – is reborn under better or worse conditions and infinitely often. For Buddhists and Hindus alike, the world has no beginning and no end.

Just as a person takes off tattered clothes and puts on new, different ones, so the soul puts off worn-out bodies and connects with other, new ones. [7]

This eternal cycle of rebirth is called samsara. In contrast to the European linear understanding of time, this is based on a cyclical one. According to the karma law, everyone is responsible for their current state of affairs, as it was always everyone who accumulated good or bad karma in his last life [1]. The same applies to the innumerable gods of the Hindus, since they too are subject to karma.

In India it is believed that every act has a double effect, namely the direct consequence on the one hand and the long-term consequence on the other. The accumulation of karma is the cause of rebirth. In order to achieve salvation moksha, that is, to get out of samsara, it is necessary to stop accumulating karma.

Only the refusal to work, ie the detachment from desire, guarantees that this high goal will be achieved. The asceticism is therefore the means which sets the cycle of existence a goal. [8th]

How can one achieve moksha?

The ultimate goal of Hinduism, the pursuit and attainment of moksha, is such a demanding process that few Hindus actually work actively on it, for example following asceticism. Even many yogis and ascetics seldom seek salvation directly. Nevertheless, one should consider how one can attain moksha from the point of view of Hinduism. Andreas Becke describes the three ways mentioned for this as follows [1, p.46f.]:

Karma Marga is the way of deed or action. This path denotes the entire area of ​​practical living. Moksha is achieved by performing one’s Dharma duties within the framework of the caste order and life stages.

Jnana-Marga is the way of knowledge. This path is regarded as the highest and purest of all paths of redemption: Jnana-Marga says that knowledge leads to redemption, that knowledge is beneficial. On the other hand, redemption through knowledge presupposes that the unredeemed state is based on ignorance. Asceticism and yoga are about getting to the self, because the world as we perceive it through the senses is Maya (delusion).

Bhakti-Marga is the way of loving devotion to God or gods. This love of God is expressed in music, flower arrangements or food offerings that are offered to God at home or in the temple, but also in moral virtues or pilgrimage. This is not only the path of the socially inferior, but above all the path of the broad masses, because very few Hindus live in asceticism.


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