Whenever I'm asked to speak about Hinduism to a Western audience, who is typically unfamiliar with our tradition, I like to use a simple acronym to highlight the core values of sanatana dharma, the eternal truth. But before that, I usually mention these four important points about our tradition:
- Hinduism represents over 5,000 years of continuous development in the Indian sub-continent.
- Hindu time-scale spans trillions of years and is cyclical. It was always there; it is eternal.
- There is no single founder. Directly taught by God to some seekers (e.g. The Bhagavad-Gita) and revealed indirectly to several other seekers (e.g. rishis of the Vedas).
- The foundational works (primary scriptures) are Vedas, Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and Bhagavad-Gita. Later works (secondary scriptures) are numerous; they include Ramayana, Mahabharata, Puranas, Dharma Sutras, etc.
The essential principles of Hinduism can be summarized as A-E-I-O-U-Y of H-I-N-D-U-I-S-M:
Ano bhadrah kratavo yantu vishvatah (Rig Veda)
Let noble thoughts come to us from everywhere.
Ekam sat, viprah bahudha vadanti (Rig Veda)
God is one; the wise speak of it in numerous ways.
[Note: In the context of the mantra where this line appears, 'sat' represents 'God' or 'deity.' The entire verse says, "They call that divine being Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and the winged Garutman. God is one but the wise speak of it in numerous ways, be it Agni, Yama, or Matarishva."]
Isha avasyam idagam sarvam yat kincha jagatyam jagat tena tyaktena bhunjita ma gridhah kasyasviddhanam (Isha Upanishad)
God permeates everything in this ever-changing universe. Enjoy your share with detachment. Don’t be greedy after someone else’s share.
[Note: For example, we just enjoy looking at the Grand Canyon or the Himalayas, without thinking that we should own it! This is enjoying life with detachment. Let's say we're at Hopi point in Grand Canyon to see the sunset. Many like us are also there. Some of them may have a better spot than us. We just enjoy the sunset from whichever spot we have. We shouldn’t stand there envying others, or plotting to knock them down to grab that spot! This is enjoying our share without greed or envy.]
Om iti brahma, om itidagam sarvam (Taittiriya Upanishad)
Om is God, om is everything
[Note: Om is the wOMb of everything! Om represents our birth (spring), growth (summer), letting go (autumn/fall), and immortality (the silence of winter).]
Uddaret atmana atmanam atmanam avasadayet atma eva hi atmano bandhuh atma eva ripuh atmana (Bhagavad-Gita)
Elevate yourself by your own effort, never put your self down, (because) you are your best friend (and) you are your worst enemy.
[Note: We see parallels to this in the words of Mark Twain: "A man can with-stand a lot as long as he can stand himself." Self-help is the best help. Be your friend first! The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself!]
Yopam ayatanam veda ayatanavan bhavati (Krishna Yajur Veda)
One who realizes the sustaining power of God, he indeed is in good hands
[Note: Compare this to the Christian belief of "If you believe that Jesus died for your sins, you will be saved."]
H for Harmony: Hinduism respects all religions and thus aspires for mutual tolerance and respect. (This does not mean that all religions are same, a common misconception among many Hindus). It does not encourage hate (intolerant of intolerance!) or actively seek converts. It emphasizes conduct more than creed. It has the capacity to assimilate all faiths and philosophies.
I for Incarnation (avatara): God descends to earth in any form and under any sky as may be needed to uphold dharma (righteousness, sustainability). There is no space, time, form, or limitations to an avatara.
N for Non-violence (ahimsa). Hinduism recognizes that life supports life. One should avoid causing unnecessary injury (in thoughts, words, or deeds) to oneself or other fellow beings including all life forms. Some Hindu sects stress vegetarianism, but on the whole it is not a prerequisite to be a Hindu. Attitude of gratitude (to the Almighty) with which we take food is more important!
D for Dharma (righteousness, sustainability). Always support what is right. This is a necessity. Dharma is the basis of harmonious life. If we don't support dharma, it is like chopping branches of the tree (of life) we are taking shade under.
U for Unity of Existence. Everything and all beings are interconnected and are essentially the manifestation or extension of the one Supreme Being. The world is one big family.
I for Inherent Value. God is omnipresent and omnipotent. Both the manifest and the un-manifest are a projection of God. They are supported, directed, and controlled by God as well. The God can be worshiped in any form or without a form. Just as the flag is a symbol of a nation, a murti (image, statue, idol, picture) for the Hindu is symbolic of the God. A Hindu worships the God enshrined in the murti.
S for Supreme Reality (Brahman, another name for God; not to be confused with Brahma or Brahmin/Brahmana). Supreme Reality is both formless and with form, impersonal and personal, transcendent and immanent. The Supreme Reality is known by many names.
M for Moksha and Mantra. Dharma (sustainability principles), Artha (materials and means), Kama (pleasures), and Moksha (liberation from cycles of birth and death, harmonious union with brahman) are the goals of life. Secondary objectives (artha and kama) are sandwiched between the primary objectives (dharma and moksha). Adherence to svadharma, one’s own inherent talents (attitudes and aptitudes), in achieving these goals is suggested. Moksha is the ultimate goal of Hindu life. There are numerous paths and innumerable opportunities. It can happen by one way or the other and in one life or the other. The various paths for moksha include: karma yoga (selfless good deeds), jnana yoga (knowledge of God), bhakti yoga (faith or devotion), prapatti or sharanagati yoga (total surrender), raja yoga (control of body, mind, and intellect), mantra yoga (union with God through repetition of a mantra), etc. Mantra is a sacred word or a verse used for prayer. The most sacred mantra of Hinduism is om (a-u-m).
A prayer from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad to conclude:
sarve bhavantu sukhinah
May all be happy
sarve santu niramayah
May all be healthy
sarve bhadrani pashyantu
May everyone prosper
ma kashchit duhkha bhag bhavet
May none suffer
om shantih shantih shantihi
Om! Peace, peace, peace!
[Peace in all our three realms: surroundings, body, and mind.]
Edited by Hari Ravikumar.