Friday, June 20, 2008

Hinduism: An Open Source religion

Hinduism stands apart from the three organized, monotheistic religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam and other major religions - Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism etc, as a weird sort of religion. All these other religions have a central defining entity. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have their prophets and their sacred books. Sikhism and Jainism have a line of sacred religious teachers but one or a few among them are considered most sacred. Buddhism has its founder - Gautama Buddha. Hinduism is a bit quirky. There are many books which can be considered sacred texts, the Vedas, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Geeta being the main ones. There are many Gods and Goddesses to worship. There are many schools of thought and traditions to follow. In fact, variety seems to be the single and most important defining quality of Hinduism. Hinduism is adaptable, versatile and most importantly it is an 'open source' religion. You can choose a flavor of Hinduism that suits your taste.

Let me just elaborate on the 'open source' bit. The Linux operating system is an open source operating system. The 'kernel' or the central component of the operating system is an open source component released under GNU-GPL for any developer to modify and re-distribute. Similarly the 'kernel' of the Hindu spiritual thought, the central idea of Hinduism, in my opinion, is a state of consciousness which can be experienced and freely interpreted by any human being. It is a spiritual experience. I am using the word spiritual a bit casually here. By spiritual, I do not mean to hint at something supernatural; although most traditional interpretations have a supernatural component. By spiritual I mean something relating to one's subjective consciousness, an experience that is available to oneself alone. This state of consciousness may correlate with a certain state or states of the human brain. This spiritual experience is termed variously as samadhi, awakening, enlightenment, nirvana etc. For brevity, I will here forth address this state as the 'samadhi'.

We know this for sure - in ancient India there were many people who followed a variety of contemplative traditions. Many people must have experienced samadhi in the course of the numerous mental and physical regimens they undertook as a part of their meditative practice and probably even under the influence of hallucinogenic substances (such as the mythical Soma) . Even though they experienced it, they were not in a position to know the neurological basis of it. All of the information we have about the nature of samadhi is from the descriptions of it, by people who at one time or another experienced it. Since samadhi is a state of consciousness accessible only to the individual experiencing it, we have no way of verifying that the experience indeed took place. But many, if not all, of the people claiming to experience samadhi seem like stand-up guys and gals. So we can safely say that some of them were indeed telling the truth. The numerous descriptions of samadhi have some common and recurring themes such as:
  1. The experience of a complete dissolution of the 'ego' (an 'I' separate from the external world),
  2. A perception of oneness with the external world
  3. A sense of profound bliss.
Most people who claim to have experienced samadhi describe it as a life changing experience, something that arouses the feelings of love, empathy and compassion in them changing their world-view in a radical way. I believe that it's this unique state of consciousness that is the kernel - the central concept - of the religion that was later on termed as Hinduism.

Like Linux, there are many distributions built around this kernel. By different 'distributions', I mean the different interpretations by different people, applying a combination of logic and metaphysical conceptions, to explain the various aspects of the samadhi experience. I think there were two important reasons for the emergence of such a variety of interpretations. In ancient India there was no single religious authority or single dominant school of religious thought. Differing ideas and debate between different schools of thought was often welcomed and promoted by rulers and elite in the society. Secondly, samadhi is a purely subjective experience. Even today we can only image and record in some detail the state of the brain of a person who is undergoing a meditative experience. As of yet there is no way to externally induce such an experience reliably. So the people who experience samadhi lacked the tools for understanding the physical and neurological basis of the experience. That combined with intense and profound nature of the experience, as judged from the lofty descriptions, must have evoked the idea that there must be something mystical behind it. The Hindu interpretations are not the only one which try to explain samadhi. Both Jainism and Buddhism arose as a result of prolonged contemplative practice and the experience of samadhi by their teachers. The distributions which broadly fall under the label Hinduism interpret the samadhi state in one particular way.These 'distributions' form the various schools of thought in Hindu philosophy.

The people who composed the Vedas believed that there is a soul (the Atman) that animates our bodies and that survives the death of our bodies. They also believed that natural phenomena were imbibed with souls as well. Hence a plethora of naturalistic gods and goddesses such as Agni (the god of fire), Varuna (the god of rain), Usha (the goddess of dawn) etc. When some of the Vedic philosophers experienced samadhi, they interpreted it thus - they ascribed the feeling of oneness experienced in the samadhi to the merging of their personal soul with the soul that pervades all of nature. They termed this soul that pervades all of nature as the 'Brahman'. This metaphysical idea of a Brahman is an important part of the 'Vedantic' interpretation of samadhi.

Contemporary Hinduism is a giddy mixture of this particular interpretation of that unique state of consciousness, along with a bunch of other baggage such as:
  • Other metaphysical hypotheses such as the laws of karma, rebirth of the soul etc.
  • A number of creation myths.
  • Belief in an amazingly large number of of gods and goddesses, each with their own rich and colorful mythology.
  • An equally huge number of rituals, rites and superstitions.
The reason I call Hinduism an 'open source' religion is because its central idea, the interpretation of the samadhi, is not controlled by any central authority. One is free to re-interpret to one's own liking. One is free to promote one's own interpretation. One is free to label one's interpretation as the most authoritative, most logical, most perfect interpretation. The history of Hindu philosophy reveals a number of such individuals and groups who chose to interpret the samadhi state in their own peculiar way. They squabbled, they argued, they constructed complicated logical arguments to refute the interpretations of the 'other' groups and establish the authority of their own interpretation. The Samkhya, Dvait (dualist), Advait (non-dualist), Vishistha-Advait (qualified non-dualist)... all these different schools are nothing but elaborate logical and metaphysical expositions of the samadhi state. Adi Shankaracharya's treatise on the Brahmasutras for example provides refutation of many different schools of thought and promotes Shankaracharya's own interpretation of Samadhi, the nature of Brahman, Atman, etc. All the schools of thought that are broadly termed 'Hindu' agree on the point that samadhi is the 'joining' of the Atman with the Brahman. Their disagreements stem from their ideas about the nature of Brahman and Atman.

How, one may ask, can one achieve this state? How can one achieve samadhi? There are many ways of doing this as well. One may follow any one of the many paths towards experiencing the samadhi state. Since samadhi is the joining or the yoking of the Atman to the Brahman, the Sanskrit word 'yoga' which means yoking is used to describe the various paths. One may follow the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga), the path of asceticism (Raj Yoga), the path of knowledge (Jnana Yoga), the path of action (Karma Yoga) - each with it's own prescription for achieving the supreme union of the Atman and the Brahman. There is never a dearth of mystics, sages, god-men and god-women in India, each claiming to have experienced the samadhi and giving their own for achieving it. New age paths like Siddha Samadhi Yoga, Art of Living etc. mostly comprise of traditional ideas repackaged and distributed through modern marketing mechanisms.

The choice of gods and goddesses to worship is my favorite aspect of Hinduism. If you are the nerdy type, you might like Ganesh - the elephant headed god of wisdom. If you are a gym loving health freak, you might want to worship Hanuman - the monkey god endowed with amazing strength and the ability to fly (like Superman but better because Hanuman is supposedly Chiranjeevi - one endowed with eternal life). Then there are a number of goddesses. Laxmi (the goddess of wealth) may be worshiped by one and all. Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and Durga (or Shakti), the goddess of energy are equally venerable. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva... the trinity... the foundations of Hindu mythology are eternal favorites among devotees. So are the many incarnations of Vishnu, Krishna and Rama being the most preferred of them all. There are of course many rituals and rites you might choose to observe to please or placate your preferred god/goddess. You may choose to enjoy the beauty of many of the devotional songs (the Bhajans and Abhangas) or devotional dances. You may indulge in meditation and chanting. If you so prefer, you may also choose the almost sadomasochistic acts of worship like sleeping on a bed of nails or standing for days on one leg.

In many respects, Hinduism is like and operating system for your life. It is a way of life. You may choose your own favorite 'distro' of the Hindu operating system, your own favorite path, your own favorite deity and still call yourself a Hindu as long as you subscribe to the central idea - the concept of the supreme Brahman. The gods and goddesses are all manifestations of the Brahman. The various paths all lead to the union of the Atman with the Brahman. The Brahman itself is something beyond all concepts. According to the "Advait" school, everything after all IS the Brahman, including you.

Thou Art That!


Anonymous said...

You are right, and its the only religion that bends away from Creationism! Hinduism doesnt believe Human being was miraculously created by a god in 7 days. Hinduism believes that Human being was created by several natural forces (earth, water, wind etc...) in the universe. All these forces are idolized & worshipped in a way you like it! (so far total identified forces are 33 Crore). Apart from this Hinduism allows you to "Godify" :) human biengs, ie a person with super abilities can be called as a God! (Ram, Krishna ...) its a very flexible & rational religion.
Only thing lacking is, Hinduism doesnt have a good "Marketing" division :)

Transmogrifier said...

Anon, thanks for your comment. I agree that the creation myths in Hinduism are quite different than the three monotheisms (who share their creation myth). But Hindu creation myths too invoke the 'supernatural' concept of Brahman. So in that aspect they are not different than creation myths of other religions.

I believe radical Hindus may be more open to accepting that life appeared on this earth naturally because they might tend to subscribe to the idea that the ground of all being is the 'Brahman'. Therefore evolution by natural selection is just the Brahman manifesting itself in myriad forms across the ages. In fact in many places this is described as the 'Leela' or play of the Brahman... manifesting itself and then going back to it's unmanifested state. For example Bhagwat Geeta 8.16 to 8.18 hints at a cyclical universe where the Brahman manifests itself as the world and it's myriad forms for 14 manvantars and then goes back to it's unmanifest state for 14 manvantars more and then the cycle continues.

I agree with you that Hindus tend to 'deify' people rather quickly. I feel that this is a shortcoming rather than advantage because such tendencies lead to the growth of cults and sometimes tend to give great power to people with rather dubious qualifications. So I won't use the adjective 'rational' to qualify such a tendency.

Anonymous said...

It's upto an individual how he interpretes the concept of Brahman or for that matter all comcepts in hinduism! for me Brahman is the ultimate collective force that drives the universe. In somewhat scientific words - it's the theroy of everything or a theory behind all theories.

well, cults are the by products of being open source, i dont think anything is harmfull in them, there should be some force opposing a huge growth, otherwise the huge growth may turn into a molopoly.

Anonymous said...


in the above post

Transmogrifier said...

Anon2 (seems like you are same as Anon1), you are right. One is free to interpret Brahman and samadhi in their own way. That is why we find all kinds of interpretations ranging from deistic, pantheistic, theistic to atheistic interpretations.

Perhaps you are right about cults too. I personally abhor the idea of deifying a person. But there are always counter trends and more benign religious movements (like Swadhyay and Ramkrishna Mission etc.) which diminish the growth and prevalance of any single cult/movement (which is good in my opinion). Interestingly, the Wikipedia page about Hindu Reform Movements has a good list of many such movements.

Jiggs said...

Saketh said...

Transmogrifier, I really enjoyed reading this post. I had never thought of Hinduism as an open-source faith before. It's a great point -- I did not realize until now how fragile are the ties that unite most Hindus.