Hinduism: Case Study of Religion

The Rig Veda is one of four collections of hymns, collectively called the Vedas, brought to the IndusValley region of the Indian Subcontinent by the Aryan people around 1500 BCE. Among these four Vedas, the Rig Veda is the most important and oldest of all, containing over one thousand hymns. Since the Aryans did not have a formal writing system, the Vedas were transmitted orally in priestly families. The Vedic hymns expressed the religion of the Aryan people. It consisted of worshipping gods through sacrifice, petition and praise (Ludwig 35). The Rig Veda speaks of many gods who live in the three realms; the sky, the atmosphere and the earth. The Rig Veda is filled with devotional hymns dedicated to the worship of these various gods who manifest their power through natural phenomenon, such as creation of life, growth, wind, fire, speech, consciousness and other facets of existence (Ludwig 37). The Rig Veda also lays down creation stories, and a mythology about the gods and the world. It was thought of as a sacred liturgical source, and the hymns were often recited, chanted and performed as a means of worship (Ludwig 36). It is upon this Veda that all worship of the sacred gods was based.

The Agnicayana ritual is an involved 12-day ritual to worship, praise and make sacrifice to the Vedic god of fire, Agni. The ritual is lead by the Yajamana, a Brahman (priest) who keeps the ritual fires of Agni burning in his home at all times. During the 12-day ritual, the Yajamana is not to leave the ritual enclosure. Every structure and utensil needed for the Agnicayana ritual is constructed on site, with the exception of the pots the Yajamana brings from his home filled with the ritual fire of Agni. From day to day there are prescribed tasks the various brahmans must complete, such as building many types of altars within the Angicayana structure, certain recitations they must make at certain times of day, and various consecrations of sacrifices made to Agni at specific times during this ritual. The final altar to build is bird shaped and is located in the trapezoid-shaped larger enclosure at the eastern end. This becomes the main offering alter. The last two days of the Agnicayana are full of special ceremonies of soma pressing and sacrifice, during which none of the Brahmans sleep (Staal, 72-73). During the Agnicayana, only one women is involved, the wife of the Yajamana. She sits perched on her knees, crouching behind a large parasol. No one is to speak to her during the 12-day ceremony, and she is not to leave the enclosure (Alter).

The Yoga Sutra is a text attributed to Patanjali. The Yoga Sutra describes the methodology and reasons behind the practice of Yoga, one of the traditional schools of Hindu philosophy (Ludwig 294). According to Patanjali, the point of Yoga is to discipline the mind and body to attain liberation (moksha) from the constant cycle of rebirth and death (samsara) that plagues the human existence (Fieser, 26). The process in which this is done is by turning one’s attention inward, away from worldly concerns, leading to detachment and wisdom (Fieser, 26). Patanjali sees this path to moksha as accomplishing a separation of a person’s spiritual essence, or purusha, from mere meaningless matter (prakriti) (Fieser, 27). He teaches that matter’s main concern is procreation and acquisition, which can only lead to suffering. By detaching one’s self from such trivial things, one can end the suffering of samsara. Turning one’s attention inward is done by following the “eight limbs” of physical and mental discipline Patanjali describes in the Yoga Sutra. If done correctly with one’s whole heart, this will lead to mental perfection, and thus moksha (Fieser, 27).

Vedanta means literally “end of the Vedas” (Ludwig, 293). It is also one of the major schools of Hindu philosophy, having its foundations in the Upanishads. Philosophers from the Vedanta school taught the teachings in the Upanishads that said that Brahman was the one true ultimate reality, and the self was identical to the Brahman (Ludwig, 47). The Vedanta school is most recognized for this nondualist view, as taught by its most famous philosopher, Shankara. Shankara taught that Brahman was unchanging and featureless, and is identical to the unchanging soul of every person, called the atman. According to this view, the problem with humanity was that we commonly believe in the illusion of change all around us, including “individualism” (Ludwig, 47). Shankara taught that the way to release one’s self from this illusionary bondage was through the special knowledge (jnana) one could attain through meditation only, that the self and the Brahman are one in the same (Ludwig, 47). Shankara taught that even Samsara itself was an illusion. The Vedanta school also teaches that there are different levels of spiritual actualization, dependent upon one’s personal spiritual development. Some of the lower levels include devotion to a person’s personal god as a way of transformation, possibly of higher birth during the next samsara cycle, but the jnana will always be the ultimate knowledge for moksha attainment (Ludwig, 48).

The Laws of Manu are the codes of the way in which a Hindu is to live according to his or her dharma. They establish the order of the caste system, and they teach proper conduct each person must uphold in order to properly fulfill his or her dharma. It is traditionally thought to have been given to Manu, the originator of humans and the first law-giver (Ludwig, 43). It can be likened to the mitzvot, or commandments, of Judaism, as they have the same purpose: The laws by which a moral, deity-fearing society must uphold to maintain not only the graces of the deity(ies), but the order of society. It is often thought that not fulfilling one’s dharma as prescribed by Manu will not only lead to endless samsara, but to total chaos within the society. It is also notable that some think the Law of Manu was brought about by the increasing threat posed by the budding religions of Jainism and Buddhism in the region, and by creating, upholding and protecting these laws, the Hindu world would be able to maintain its identity in the face of these new, potentially threatening, religions (Ludwig, 43).

Religion is one of the most difficult words in language to define. Since religious tradition is by its very nature extremely diverse, it is nearly impossible to come up with a definition that encompasses all of the richness surrounding the religions of the world. In his book The Scared Paths of the East, Theodore Ludwig gives a four tiered definition that I feel comes very close to truly defining religion. This definition is general enough to be applicable to almost all religions, yet specific enough to be useful in defining those religions, as will be shown with the example of Hinduism.

The first tier of Ludwig’s definition is that religion is the human involvement with what is considered to be the realm of the sacred. According to Ludwig, the point is not to attempt to define, or prove/disprove the sacred, but to understand what the sacred means to a particular tradition and how the people of that tradition relate to it in a material, non-sacred world or existence. It can be done through many ways, such as art, dance, sculpture, ritual, prayer, and so on.Where Hinduism has its roots, in Vedic religion, involvement with the sacred was mostly done through hymns and ritual. The Vedic followers would perform large elaborate rituals to honour a god. For example, the performance of the 12-day Agnicayana ritual involved strict processes for constructing an enclosure in which the Vedic fire god, Agni, was believed to enter and symbolically partake of the offerings of soma and food. They would also sing hymns from the Sama Veda as a way of personal interaction with the sacred. In modern Hindu tradition, the puja is offered every morning to the god/goddess of one’s personal worship, and the deity is thought to symbolically partake of it. In this way, the modern Hindu can personally interact with what is thought to be the sacred to him in the modern era.

The second tier to Ludwig’s definition is that religion is expressed through thought, action and social forms. This portion includes such things as myth, doctrine, right action and the social construct associated with a particular tradition. In Hinduism, this portion contains a veritable wealth of information that is all cosmically linked together. The creation of the universe in Hinduism is taken from the Rig Veda. As the story goes, the universe was created from the sacrifice of a large entity called Purusha. It is said that all creatures are a part of him, three quarters of which remain immortal in heaven and the remaining one quarter of which became the creatures of the earth. Specifically, it is said, that the social classes (varna) were born of his parts. “His mouth became the Brahman, his arms were made into the Kshatriya (warriors), his thighs the Vaishya (merchants), and from his feet the Shudra (servants) were born” (Fieser, 8). This story outlines the basis upon which the universe was created and the social structure that was mandated by the sacred. The Law-Code of Manu is also an integral part of this system. Manu was said the be the original man and law-giver. It was he who took the story of Purusha and elaborated on the social context by detailing the proper dharma, or right action, that each class should embody. By embodying this dharma, each class is playing its crucial role in the maintenance of a pious, orderly community. When this dharma is not followed, it is thought that society will crumble into chaos and the gods will become angry. These are clear examples of the second tier of Ludwig’s definition.

The third tier is that a religion constitutes a total system of symbols with deep meaning. A symbol is anything that is considered by the tradition as representative of or brings one closer to ultimate reality. In Hinduism, the gods have many symbols. The most widely recognizable symbol is the lingam, the male phallic symbol. It is usually placed on top of the yoni, the female element. Together the two symbols represent the great god Shiva. Followers of the Shiva Bhakti often wear symbols of the linga around their necks, making a public statement that they are Shaivites. Vishnu, another of the major gods in modern Hinduism, is usually depicted standing straight up holding his four main symbols in his four arms: the conch, wheel, mace and lotus. The conch represents the origins of the universe with its spiral shape emanating from a single point. The lotus flower represents the unfolding of the universe from the creation waters. The wheel represents time and its cyclical season, and the mace represents powerful knowledge (Ludwig, 76). Depending on the personal needs of the worshipper, Vishnu can be depicted holding these symbols in a variety of sequences. Finally, the goddess Kali is also often associated with certain sacred symbols. She is usually shown wearing a necklace made of severed heads and a girdle of severed arms while wielding a bloody sword in one hand and the severed head of a demon in the other (Ludwig, 76). These depict the ferocity of Mother Kali, the destroyer of worlds. These are, by far, not all of the symbols in Hinduism. However, these symbols are very profound to the Hindu because, through them, they can achieve a higher understanding of the gods, which brings them a little closer to the divine.

The final tier of Ludwig’s definition is that religion is a path of ultimate transformation. In order for a religion to have appeal, it needs to offer its followers some sort of other worldly reward which can only be attained by following a specific set of rules or practices offered only through a particular tradition. This concept is very true of Hinduism, though within Hinduism there are many different paths leading to the same spiritual transformation. The basic concept behind the spiritual transformation in Hinduism is moksha (liberation) from samsara (the constant cycle of rebirth and death). The basic rules of attaining moksha are roughly the same throughout all schools of Hindu philosophy, though their individual ideology may differ. Generally speaking, any person from a “twice born” cast (a Brahman, a Kshatriya, or a Vaishya) may, at the time when he begins to gray and he sees his grandson born, retreat into a life of asceticism where he renounces all worldly concern and turns himself inward resulting in detachment and wisdom. Prior to this withdrawal from society, the twice born person needs to fulfill his dharma as it is detailed in the Law-Code of Manu, and acted well, receiving little to no bad karma. If this is done correctly, the person will attain moksha from samsara. Different schools of Hindu philosophy may employ different means of inward journeying, or withdrawal to seek different types of knowledge, but it is all done for the same final goal of moksha. Since moksha is the goal of Hinduism, it is appropriate to lump such a vast amount of thought into one tradition.

Applying Theodore Ludwig’s four tiered definition of religion to Hinduism shows that it is an all encompassing tool to better understand both the similarities and differences in religion. By putting such a complicated subject into a generalized framework of concepts, one is able to better interpret what it means to be religious. It also gives scholars a better way to approach the collecting of empirical data when studying various traditions. By better defining religious phenomenon, in all its diversity, the door opens to a broader understanding between religious communities by means of finding common ground among them. Understanding the similarities as well as the differences in the diverse traditions, as Ludwig’s definition clearly encourages, may open the door for religious communities to converse on a much broader scale.

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