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Spirituality and Hinduism

----Srinivasan Nenmeli-K

This short article presents the basic tenets and beliefs of Hindu faith or religion which form the
foundation for a spiritual life.

Any religion has several layers of forms of worship, rituals and scriptures of different antiquities and
cultural mores .The spiritual foundations are deep within, acknowledged as such, but not always
exhibited or discussed. Scriptural texts like the Upanishads and the Gita [the Bhagavad Gita] contain
these spiritual concepts of Hinduism, but they are not easily culled out for our close observation and
In the first place, what is spirituality? How does it differ from any organized religion? These are not
easy questions to answer since we use the term ‘spirituality’ in a casual manner most of the time.
One Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel defined it thus: “Spirituality is life lived in the
continuous presence of the Divine.” This definition is useful since it talks about a way of life, and talks of the
Divine as 'divine', not any particular God or deity.
In fact Hinduism is called a ‘way of Life ‘ rather than a religion with a body of observances and a set
of beliefs.

A few basic facts about Hinduism should be remembered here. Firstly, there is no single
‘founder’ of this religion. We can say that Buddhism has the founder Gautama, the Buddha [the
awakened one or Sakyamuni]. Hinduism grew out of a culture, call it spiritual culture or religious
culture, perhaps ten thousand years ago in the northern parts of India. When Alexander the Great
overran part of western India, this religion was well established; in fact he took several learned
scholars with him to Greece to expound on this faith.

Hindus hold the Vedas as the basic scriptures to define the religion.
Again the Vedas have no single author or was not handed down to a person , like Torah was given to
Moses in Mount Sinai. The Hindus maintain that the Vedas are eternal, meaning they are very
ancient. It is called a “shruti” ----heard scripture---which came to the seers or rishis by intuition or
divine inspiration. They cover a vast amount of religious and spiritual insights.
The Vedas were compiled by one sage Vyasa, called Veda Vyasa. [Vyasa appears to be a generic
name for a compiler, because Vyasa is credited with compilation of several other later texts such as
the epic Mahabharata and the Puranas.] This vyasa , Veda Vyasa , compiled the Vedas into four
books—thus we have four Vedas—Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva.
[ A digression here: Of these, the first three –Rig, Yajur and Sama are really old ones…Atharva was
compiled later , because the Gita reckons only three Vedas in one of the verses in the 9th chapter.
Atharva contains several ‘vedas’ relating to mundane arts such as medicine [ayurveda], magic, witch
craft, architecture and so on. ]

The Vedas
The Vedas contain three parts: the first portion is the songs and hymns for prayer and worship
called Samhitas.

The second portion has ‘brahmanas’---mostly about rituals and ways of conducting various ritualistic
sacrifices by Brahmins [priestly caste] and Kshatrias [warrior-princes].
The third part is called “Aranyakas” ---the forest books—‘Aranya’ means woods or forest---where
the sages and teachers lived with their families and taught young ones , the esoteric knowledge and
also worldly arts [like martial arts and archery].They were like exclusive private academies, meant
for earnest students who stayed with a master for at least 12 years. The master was a man of great
erudition and realization of truth to expound on the Vedas. He took great care in accepting a student.
The Aranyakas contain the spiritual essence of the Vedas and contain Upanishads in seminal form.
The fourth part is the Vedanta [ the end portion ‘anta’ of the Vedas, which are like
appendices..]Another more appropriate description is that the Vedanta is the culminating portion of
the Vedas, not just appendices---the essence of the Vedas.]
{We must note here that the term “vedanta’ is often used for the entire path of the Hindus and also
that Vedanta is one of the systems of philosophy. But here we use Vedanta only to mean the
knowledge derived from the Upanishads. There are Vedanta Societies, using a broader sense of the
{The vedic chapters are usually divided into two broad portions: karma kanda [the chapters on
works--rituals and worship] and Gyana kanda [the knowledge part or wisdom section]This divisin is
hard because in some places,they overlap.}

While there are more than 100 Upanishads, some of them partially completed texts, the tradition
holds 28 Upanishads as very sacred and authentic. Of these, ten are called “Principal Upanishads”
because the great philosopher-saint Adi Shankara [788-820 AD] wrote commentaries on them. [Adi
Shankara is the founder of a sect of advaitism which is dominant even today. The age of Adi
Shankara is not firmly established, but should be around 8th century or a few centuries earlier.]

We have to consider the Upanishads in some detail , because they contain the essence of spirituality
to be developed later in this article. The word ‘Upanishad’ means ‘sitting nearby’—an expression that
indicates that the students sat close to the master and learned directly from the master---[ no online
teaching!]. There were no written books---students repeated the verses and memorized them.
The Upanishads are more like college lecture notes---very cryptic---they are in dialogue form as
well as question-answer format. The dialogues are between master and student or the Lord of Death
and an earnest seeker, a young boy named Nachiketas, or between a prince and a teacher or the sage-
husband and his wife.
They are not philosophical texts, with well-ordered chapters of a book. They have several pregnant
questions and answers or partial answers, because the answers cannot be put in words ,but are to be
The basic premise is that Spiritual insight or Self-realization is beyond mind and intellect…so cannot
be found by intellectual arguments or discussion…these can point the way --- words and language are
highly limited…analogies and parables may help…Upanishads are like snap-shots of spiritual
insight by the seers.

The Gita
The Upanishads are the basic source for us for developing the spirituality according to the Hindus---
the main theme of this article. The Bhagavat Gita which was a later introduction is a basic text for
Hindus.This is again a part of Mahabharata, the epic; but some consider this as a later addition,
tagged on to the epic. {There are other gitas which need not concern us here.The word Gita means a

The Bhagavat Gita is set in the context of Lord Krishna’s legendary
stories and extra-ordinary life. This work is about 5000 years old—Krishna’s time according to
modern historians. The Upanishads are much older texts.
The Gita is considered as the essence of the Upanishads, but the Gita goes beyond the Upanishads.
It reinterpreted the meaning of sacrifices or yagas from the vedic meaning. In Vedic language,
yagas were rituals to propitiate some God or Goddess for some favors or gifts or merits. In the
language of the Gita ,a sacrifice is part of renunciation---self-less work or gift of knowledge would
be a sacrifice as well. You can chant mantras and incantations for the welfare of the world and offer
that as a sacrifice. In other words, one does not do this for the welfare of himself or his family or his
clan. The gita also emphasized the path of action or karma yoga from a fresh perspective—not just
rituals as prescribed in the Vedas, but self-less action.

The Bhagavat Gita is in the form of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and his warrior-friend Arjuna.
Thus it is easy to follow….with or without elaborate commentaries. Many common questions that
arise in our minds ---the eternal questions of spirituality --- are asked by Arjuna and the Lord answers
them in definitive terms…In many places, the Gita appears as a dictionary of specific terms. We shall
draw many concepts from the Gita.

Above all, the Gita is a practical manual of the major yogas or paths….Swami Vivekananda [ 1863-
1902] condensed the various yogas into four major yogas or paths---
Gyana yoga-yoga of knowledge and enquiry; Raja Yoga—yoga of meditation and breath control;
Bhakti Yoga--Yoga of devotion and Karma Yoga ,the yoga of self-less action. You will find elaborate
descriptions and emphasis on these yogas, chapter by chapter ,in the Gita. Thus you can go straight to
one of the chapters and learn about that particular yoga. [Later authors/philosophers tried to graduate
the yogas in some sequence—karma, then bhakti and then gyana and so on…thus one follows a
sequence of practice….these are of very limited value, since no one can follow one yoga to the
exclusion of the other…Further one yoga is not superior to another…these polemics led to lot of
controversies, verbal battles , sectarian philosophies and much schism among the Hindus.We need not
dwell on these at all, in the context of spirituality. This will clear our minds from much of useless
literature that came in later years.]

It should be added that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the basic text for meditation and psychic
powers, is a later text, perhaps of 1st century/2nd century CE---the period of early Christianity. Though
this is a useful text for meditational practice, it does not have the significance of the Gita.
We shall draw the spiritual moorings of the Hindus basically from the Upanishads and the Gita. The
following books are recommended for a quick and brief introduction to the contents of the two texts,
especially for western or young readers:
n The Bhagavad Gita ---Eknath Easwaran –Nilgiri press, CA
n The Upanishads---Eknath Easwaran-Nilgiri Press, CA [both texts have a weighty introduction in simple terms]
n The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita –N K Srinivasan –Pustak Mahal, New Delhi [the present author]
n The Holy Geeta – Swami Chinmayananda—Chinmaya trust, Mumbai
n The Gita – Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood—Vedanta Society, Los Angeles.
n The Hindu Mind ---- Bansi Pandit ---Dharma Publications, Il [ An elementary ,but highly readable introduction
to Hinduism]

[ I must add that there are a few sects of Hindus who do not accept the Gita or the Krishna lore.They
go by texts relating only to Lord Shiva.]

Now to the basic concepts of spirituality in Hinduism:

The Brahman
The Brahman is One; It is formless and attibuteless. Brahman pervades the whole universe. It is
without beginning and without end. Brahman is at once, immanent in the phenomenal universe and
also transcendental---beyond mind and intellect. Brahman cannot be described in words—It is
beyond language.

Brahman can be known only thorough ‘transcendental experience”--- in meditative state or Samadhi
as described in Hindu scriptures.

The concept of Brahman is central to Hinduism and in that, it reaches pure monotheistic religion.

The Brahman can be replaced by other terms: Sat or truth. Or Existence because Brahman alone
exists, One without a second. Other things are part of phenomenal, ephemeral, changing ,
impermanent entities.

[ A digression here: A group of philosophers ---Emerson, Theorau and others formed a group around
Boston—the transcendental philosophers, called ‘Boston Brahmins’. They were fascinated by the
Upanishadic and vedantic concepts and did much to introduce them in the USA, a few decades
before Swami Vivekananda arrived in Chicago for Parliament of Religions in 1893..]

[The word ‘Brahman’ denotes the nameless, formless entity. Lord ‘Brahma’ is one of the deities, the
Lord of creation, in the Hindu trinity of three gods-Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. ‘Brahmin’ is a person
of the priestly caste. It is better to avoid confusion while using these terms. Yet many books mix
them up.
The poem “ Hymn to Brahma” by Emerson is actually addressed to “Brahman”; we can excuse his
mix up in those early days of Vedanta in the west.]

One can meditate on the formless Brahman in various ways. Brahman is present every where. Many
philosophers equated Brahman with ‘consciousness’. Consciousness , again can be misleading, as we
use it in various ways. Consciousness was then used in specific ways---‘Cosmic consciousness’ or
Universal Consciousness to denote Brahman.---It is easy to say we are all ‘consciousness’ --- a term
that comes easy for modern day philosophers, popular writers and new-age gurus.
Consciousness can be a ‘form ‘ of Brahman or attribute---this is called “Chit’ in Sanskrit—the
language of the Vedas and Upanishads and the Gita---it is one of those Indo-European languages.]
You have to pardon me for using the term “form ‘ of Brahman…since I wrote that Brahman had no
form…Consciousness is a term
invented by us to depict Brahman that is all…It is not Brahman ---period.

{ Since Brahman is immanent and pervades everything ,one can meditate on the Brahman imagining
that ‘it’ is seated in the heart [Hindus] or in the naval region or hara [the Buddhists] or at the point
between eyebrows {Hindus} or other energy point or charkas in the body.
Note that Brahman is neither male nor female nor neutral, but can be referred to as IT.]

There is another approach for Brahman. Brahman is the eternal Joy, permanent, unsullied joy, the
supernal Bliss. All the earthly joys are impermanent, fleeting pleasures and may lead to pain. You can

focus on the concept of “pure Bliss’. Several mystics develop along these lines, rejecting the earthly
pleasures and joys---even joy of art and music as distractions. Mythologists like Joseph Campbell
who studied Hindu philosophy and mythology in depth and who collaborated with Hindu monks ,
followed this approach of ‘pure bliss” or Ananda.
Again ‘Ananda’ is a term to depict one aspect of Brahman—it is a term…Bliss is not Brahman---

So far we have introduced three approaches to meditate upon or discuss Brahman: Sat- existence;
Chit-consciousness; Ananda – Bliss or Joy
The three terms together--- ‘Sat-Chit-Ananda’ is a form of Brahman ----Brahman is Sat-chit-ananda
swarupa or image.Again note that the moment we have introduced these three terms—either singly or
together, we have limited the concept of Brahman.

Reality and reality

Reality or truth or sat can denote Brahman. To perceive Reality, with capital ‘R”, is to realize
Brahman. But this term has created as much confusion and polemics as the term ‘Consciousness.”
The Hindu spirituality identifies reality at two levels. Reality with capital R is the Absolute ,
Brahman beyond name and form. That reality has no action to perform and no effect of action [good
or bad] attaches to it. To realize Brahman is to become Brahman .[ ‘Brahma vid brahmaiyva
Bhavati.’] This is the absolute Reality, called ‘Paramathika’ reality.

But Hindu spirituality also recognizes ‘reality’ with small ‘r’.It is the reality perceived by our
senses and mind---in the phenomenal world. This is called ‘transactional ‘ [‘Vyavakarika’ ] reality; In
this reality, we pass through pain and pleasure, face good and bad things, fame and ignominy and so
on---the so-called pairs of opposites .[Dwandas] .We have to eat, find food and shelter, however
minimal our needs are; we transact with others with moral/ethical principles. But we know that these
are ephemeral, impermanent. Even mountains are not permanent, they may blow up in a volcano or
get eroded…nothing, nothing lasts for ever. Empires, kingdoms and civilizations appear and die
away. We have to be in this relative world with small ‘r’ reality when we have body and mind…This
is the ‘burden of one’s existence’ in the earth plane.

Philosophers and students of religion have difficulty in understanding this reality in vivaharika or
transactional sense. Hence they argue why a kind,compassionate God should let wars, holocausts and
calamities happen?
Why good men suffer? The reality in transactional world happens according to action and reaction ---
the karma theory. The reaction may occur after a time delay. So we are not able to correlate action
and reaction. Note that this karma is infallible. Sometimes it is shocking.
We find good persons going through much suffering. Even saints and sages are not spared.
Ramakrishna Paramahansa, the great mystic, suffered from throat cancer. Bhagavan Ramana
Maharshi had cancer in the arm and had to suffer. But this is reality in the relative or transactional
sense. This reality has very little to do with absolute Reality or Brahman.
The problem with our mind is that in its preoccupation with the reality in the transactional sense, it
forgets or fails to grasp the Absolute Reality, beyond the worldly actions.
To explain further, I and my brother are the same Brahman in the absolute sense; but in
transactional reality, we are two beings and have separate functions.
What is the link between the Reality or Brahman and the realities? This is the big question in
spirituality ;almost all major religions try to answer in their own way. Hindu philosophers called the

reality with small ‘r’ as illusion, like the mirage or snake in the rope for a person in the dark and so
on.Some negate the mind saying that mind really does not exist or has limited role.and so on. Some
call this phenomenal world and reality [small ‘r’] as reflected consciousness, as the image of the sun
in a mirror.

Soul or Atman
Soul or atman is the entity in all living, sentient beings , that activate our body and minds. All
sentient beings [humans, animals, insects and birds and so on] have this entity. Soul is permanent, and
indestructible. When the soul leaves the body or transmitted elsewhere, the body becomes a dead
matter. [According to some scholars, the soul enters a foetus sometime in the 4th month of pregnancy
in humans.]
The soul activates the mind and the body. This concept is to be grasped very well to understand the
spirituality of the Hindus. The senses act because of soul-force. The eye is only an instrument; there
is something beyond the eye which activates and coordinates it with cognitive mind…The
Upanishads put it in simple, graphic language: “it is the eye of the eye, ear of the ear and so on.”
The soul gives the life-force or prana which is beyond the chemical reactions or metabolism in the
body. { The breath is only an external instrument for ‘prana’.Pranayama means control of prana,
while breath-control or regulation is a means for the pranayama.}
Again the atman or soul is not the mind; the mind is activated by the soul. The soul is independent
of the mind. [A living person may be mentally unsound or dysfunctional still his soul is acting. He
may be in a coma or dead to the external world, but still he is a living entity.] The soul does not carry
good or bad actions, merits or sins; but activates the body and mind according to the previous actions
or karma.
The concept of ‘soul’ or ‘atman’ is central to Hinduism. It is another concept like ‘brahman’.
[Buddhism does not speak about a God or atman.This is one of the major difference between the two
religions. Buddhism works with the mind and negates it and talks of “Sunyata” state].

Where does the soul reside in the body? This is a natural question one would ask.It permeates
throughout the body. It is not located in one place, though it may be ‘felt’ in the center of the chest or
the symbolic heart [not the heart pump.]Upanishads are clear on this. But they also state in figurative
sense that it is seated in the heart or the size of a small thumb. This is to indicate it is very very small,
miniscule. The seat of soul is the chest---this is again a figure of speech; It is like saying that the seat
of US government is in Washington D C or the seat of Indian Government is in New Delhi—the
capitals.We know that its force or influence extends throughout the nation.
[There had been much discussion regarding the location of the soul in the human body---some said
‘a few inches right of the center of the chest’.;these are ‘human impressions’ about the location. The
soul pervades the whole body, just as air pervades the sky.]
We have used the term “Soul “ or Atman ; It is the same as “Self”, with capital letter “S”. The word
‘self’ with small ‘s’ would mean one’s personality or ego, which psychologists talk about.
What is “Soul realization” or “Self-realization” in the Hindu sense? It is to identify oneself with the
mind to the Atman or Self. The mind is identified with the body and its functions and the functions of
the mind. Can mind be switched off so that the Self illumines our Being? Or can the mind sink into
the ‘heart’ that the soul shines forth.The soul is like the sun--self-luminous. It can be covered-- like
the clouds covering the sun. The cloud is the mind, in our case.
To elaborate on this, our mind is mostly concerned with our body—identified with this body---this
is also called ‘dehatma buddhi’--- the intellect obscured by the body. As long as this happens, the
Soul is not revealed or shine forth.May be it is felt in short glimpses.

This spiritual concept is repeatedly emphasized in Hinduism. When the mind is switched off even for
a few seconds or minutes, the self is realized for those moments---this is called the Samadhi state.
The experience,however, leaves an indelible impression in the conscious, every day mind.

[Is the soul same as the spirit in the three levels of body, mind and spirit? Is it the same as the Holy
Ghost? Ponder over this.]

Relationship between Brahman and the Atman

We have spoken about Brahman and the Atman. What is the relationship between the two? Are they
same? Are they made of same stuff, that is, in essence there is no difference between the two? This is
the view of advaitins –a sectarian view among the Hindus. What does the Upanishads say? What does
Lord Krishna say on this in the Gita? This discussion will take us to the root of Hindu faith.

The Upanishads tell us that the Self or Aham is the same as Brahman. The Soul or atman is in
essence the same as Brahman and emanates from Brahman.If Brahman is fire made of fire-wood or
embers, the souls are flying sparks…This is the graphic description.

There is another concept in Hinduism. What you find in macrocosm, that is the Universe, is found in
the human body or microcosm. This concept is based on the premise that the body is activated by the
Soul while the Universe is activated by Brahman and then both are of the same stuff. If one explores
his own physical and mental frame, he should find the same elements as in the Universe. [Through
this body, it is possible to find oneness with the entire universe. This also provides the hope that
through this body, macrocosm can be understood. I am really packing many concepts in this single
paragraph. The elaboration will take us too far.]

These concepts about the Soul or Atman and its relationship to Brahman implies that the human
body is a sacred thing---in fact a temple in which the Supreme Being is seated as the Atman. One
should not desecrate this body, though it can decay. Body is not be neglected, while obsession with
the body should be avoided…[Suicidal tendencies are to be avoided.]

Since the soul is of the same nature in all, there is no distinction or high and low among people.
Even animals need to be shown respect and reverence to some degree…Hence Hindus worship
various animals as manifestations of the Divine and also some of them become strict
vegetarians.[One could offer an animal as sacrifice and consume the meat as the sacred food or
Prasad---this custom was prevalent among the Hindus and also is being practised to some extent in
some functions. But this is detested.]

Three views of the relationship

Though the spiritual bases of Hinduism do not really depend on these views, it is better to delve on
this, because latter day Hinduism has been concerned about this.Three philosophies---Advaita,
Vishist-advaita and Dvaita ---dwell upon this in three different ways. According to Advaita or non-

duality, Brahman and Atman are identical. It is the ignorance that separates us. The
Mahavakyas---“Aham brahmasmi” and the other three —tell clearly this view.
The problem here is not whether this view is true or not. This view is not realized in normal
conscious state…it can be experienced only in Samadhi state.

The qualified monism or Vishist-advaita qualifies the first stand that though the atman and Brahman
are essentially the same, this cannot be realized while one is living or the soul is tied to the body. The
bound soul or soul limited to the body is essentially a lower manifestation compared to free
Brahman. Brahman ,in this sense, is Param-atman or Supreme Being . What is more , the ruler of the
Universe, the Brahman as we perceive, has number of great attributes [kalyana gunas] and is
adorable. These qualifications of the Brahman takes us right to the door of a devotional, theistic path.
Such is the second view.[This view appeals to large section of the population because Brahman can
be worshipped as a Personal God and loved as a Person. with mythical stories or puranas.]

The third view is the exact opposite of the first view.The soul is separate and different from
Brahman or God and would remain separate for ever. Brahman is way above the individual soul that
as humans and animals we can only serve and dimly perceive the Supreme Being or the Brahman.
The third view also leads to concepts of hell and eternal damnation.Though some sects of Hindus
follow this, such views are not very popular. Small sects still follow this view in India.

One may feel that the three views are all plausible; but what is the final truth? The answer is that the
three views are three different levels of perception.
One can pursue any one view. What is important is the belief in the concepts of Brahman and the
Atman.This will qualify him for being a Hindu.

[ The first view was propounded by Adi Shankara [788-812 CE]though the concepts were more
ancient. The second view of Vishist-advaita was crystallized by Sri Ramanuja [12th century] though
the views were embedded in Hindu faith before 9th century.
The third view, Dvaita, was propounded by Madhwa in 13th century.All the three supported their
views with statements/arguments drawn from Upanishadic statements, the Bhagavad Gita and some
puranas.[mythological legends]. I can only state that they twisted the meanings to suit their
interpretations and neglected other opposing arguments. They were towering personalities in their
own right. They revived Hinduism in critical times. Volumes have been written on these views. But
for the purpose of spirituality, simple faith in the words of saints and sages would do.][There is an
opinion that Sri Madhwa was influenced by the Christian missionaries in the 13th century in India and
borrowed the concepts of heaven,hell and eternal damnation. But Sri Madhwa did support his views
from the Upanishads, the Gita and more heavily from the Puranas.]

Isvara and the Devotional Path

Isvara is the manifestation of Brahman in some form--- for adoration and worship. While
Brahman is One and formless, Isvara can be many and take many different forms. This leads to
polytheism as a spiritual concept among the Hindus.

Brahman can choose to take on a form, including human form and become an entity of worship. This
leads to the concept of incarnation of God as human or even in animal form.The ten incarnations of
Vishnu are well-known.Lord Rama and Lord Krishna are two of the ten incarnations.
Note that when we talk of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as three Isvaras or gods entrusted with the role
of creator, preserver and destroyer, we are limiting Brahman to human thinking and dimensions.!
Pure advaitins shudder at this idea, but still may not free themselves fully from this notion. It is
deeply ingrained in the Hindu mind.
Female goddesses or Isvaris were also included for worship.Thus in Hindu pantheon , goddesses
occupy a highly venerable place.
There is a practical reason also for this.We cannot worship or adore a formless, attributeless, entity
Brahman or God. The incarnations help us to show adoration and focus our minds on Brahman,
besides ethical teachings. .In other words, Brahman becomes a Divine Being, Purushottama and can
be worshipped. [From this, all the mythology and legends grew.]

The worship of Gods/Goddesses as manifestations of one Brahman is fundamental to Hindu

faith. This leads to devotional path or Bhakti marga.
The Upanishads mention ‘Upasana’ –prayer and adoration as the valid preparation of the mind. But
Bhakti as such is not developed….Upanishads were concerned with the basic questions of Brahman
and the Universe. But the Gita is full of devotional methods. Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to worship
him with single-pointed devotion. He also states that if you worship other gods, those devotions
would also end up with him..He states repeatedly that you can know God or the Supreme Being
easily through devotion to a personal God.
It may appear that by these concepts, Hinduism had moved away from the Oneness of Brahman .Is
Hinduism really polytheistic? ---not at all.Hindu spirituality goes beyond the form and shapes we find
around us. Ultimately there is only one God or Brahman controlling every thing. But while we have
the human body and the senses, we are limited to [and conditioned to] worshipping with forms,
names and legends. Almost all saints and mystics experienced the pure Brahman states, at least for
brief periods.
Notably, mystics of Hindu faith, like Sri Ramakrishna flip-flopped from one state to the other—
while in Samadhi state, they were one with Brahman, while in normal worldly state, they were
worshipping their beloved deity or Ishta devata.They could do this many times a day.!
The lives of such mystics and sages like Ramana Maharshi give the credence to this spiritual
foundation of Brahman on the one hand and worship of Gods/goddesses in the relative sense. What is
important to note is that the formal worship of gods purifies one’s mind of bad thoughts, focuses the
mind for long periods of concentration and meditation on the divine and gives beatific experience
sooner or later.
In an more empirical basis, the concept of Isvara for worship pins down spiritual practices in
religious context. Even in mundane life, take the case of nationhood.It is an abstract concept, though
one can draw a map of the nation.We reinforce patriotic feelings by having a national flag to be
respected; we rise when the national anthem is sung and the flag hoisting; you have constitution to

limit many practices and disciplines; why ,we even talk of a national bird, as if other birds are
useless. Likewise, Isvara with lot of ritualism is a way of developing devotion and mental focus for
spiritual ventures.
Another powerful aspect of the concept of “Ishvara” and “Isvari” is that thousands of temples were
built and ‘image worship’ or idolatry [archa avatara’] was accepted as a common means of worship
and accepted by all.Even pure advaitins like Bhagwan Ramana or Sadasiva Brahmendra
acknowledged this form of worship as a valid practice.!.

The Role of Gurus

A ‘guru’ is one who dispels darkness—in this case, the darkness of spiritual ignorance. A guru
takes personal responsibility for the spiritual progress of the disciple or chela or sishya. [A guru is not
a simple lecturer or speaker or a philosopher who holds seminars or satsanghas. These are helpful to
disseminate the teachings of Hindu faith. Preaching is not an important part of Hinduism. In fact,
preachers are always looked down upon by the Hindu society. Great saints and sages speak a little
but guide chelas by strict moral discipline and pointed experiences.] A guru examines a disciple and
carefully guides with very rigorous discipline of spiritual thinking and practices.
[ I am often amused when I hear about gurus who were trained by a master for a few months and had
only attended a course of instruction or lectures for a few months. They collect lecture notes and hold
satsanghas in their cities.Quick awakening of Kundalini and other inspirations are often misguided
instructions for this fast-paced society!]
It is extremely rare to find real gurus. Then there is a famous dictum that when a sadhak or seeker is
ready, a guru will appear. This means that a sincere seeker will be provided with a suitable guru by
God. It is this faith that had supported the spirituality of the Hindus for thirty or more centuries.
Gurus are not to be found in the yellow pages or in Sunday notifications. [ Lectures and seminars
have their value to disseminate knowledge about Vedanta---like the present article does; but not to
train masters .]
It is an axiom in Hindu spirituality that one needs a guru to scale the heights of spiritual
mountains. Why is this so? In the first place, spiritual progress is difficult in these days of various
distractions. Secondly, the spirituality of the Hindus is so esoteric and sacred, one has to develop
many disciplines and mental attunement which only a guru can impart. Self-help books and do it
yourself kits are not of much value. The life in an ashram is conducive for this spiritual growth—
ashrams which are places of serenity and sacredness---not commercial bazaars or social clubs.

Worldly Life versus Ascetic Life

There is a mistaken notion that Hinduism focuses on ascetic life with renunciation and going to the
forest as a mendicant/monk and deprecates family life or worldly concerns. Nothing is farther from
the truth. Hinduism endorses two ways of life or marga: the “ Pravritti marga” is with worldly life, as
a householder, as a parent, as a son or daughter, as a teacher and a social worker. It only calls for
doing one’s duty in the society and following dharma or righteousness and also doing self-less work
in the sense of karma yoga given in the Gita---without looking for fruits or results of action---that is
altruistic action.
The other path is that of “Nivritti marga”, the path of renunciation—leaving the hearth and the
home, living with minimum possessions [begging bowl, loin cloth,a staff and water pot in hand---
living in huts or caves in forest –in the hills/mountains away from the society. The Hindu spirituality
acknowledged this as a valid path ,but reduced its importance. For one thing such a life is not for
everybody—much maturity is required. Further, the development of discrimination [between real and
unreal, between eternal life and ephemeral life ] (Viveka) and non-attachment [Viragya] are not easy
to attain. It may happen that some get to this point of Viveka and Vairagya , whatever may be the age,
and leave the home and the mundane life.Such was the case of Adi Shankara,Ramana and Sadashiva
The Nivritti marga means becoming a monk with vows of celibacy and poverty-- a mendicant
life.One goes to the forest and lives as given above or lives among people, wandering from one

village to another, as a mendicant.One should not stay for more than three days in a village , so that
one does not develop attachments for people and things.[We have the adage that ‘ a person and a fish
should not stay put for more than three days’—then they would stink!.]
The ascetic life has been extolled and fixed in the minds of many people because we have been
reading more about the saints and sages like Bhagawan Ramana, Swami Sivananda, Adi Sankara
,Sadashiva Brahmendra and others.There were and are many householder saints of high order. Lahiri
Mahasay [the paramaguru ,guru of guru of Paramahansa Yogananda] was a well-known householder

The path of renunciation became strong after the Buddhist religion . Pravritti marga or family life
was the predominant approach much earlier.

Four Stages of Life

The four ashramas or stages in life were well defined and became a blue print for life for million of
common people.
The first stage was ‘brahmacharya’ or student life, observing celibacy and learning the arts and the
scriptures [including martial arts] with a master or artisan for about 12 years. The student gets
initiated by formal ceremony .The student serves the master with household chores and gets a free
boarding while a student.

The second stage is that of ‘grihastha’ – a housholder.The student gets married, starts earning money,
brings up a family.The hindu tradition defined the duties of a house-holder—to support parents,
teachers, guests who may visit and the academies/temples in the society.The duty of supporting
parents and elders was an important duty. A householder also supports the king, in social

The third stage is that of ‘Vanaprastha”-literally, one who enters a forest-that is, he retires to a forest
away from worldly life, becomes a teacher or counselor [Acharya] or becomes a recluse or
hermit,given to piety and meditations. Slowly he cuts off the relationships with his immediate family.
His understanding and intuitive power should increase by now.[The present author is essentially in
‘vanaprastha’ stage.]
The fourth stage is ‘Sannyasa’ ---complete renunciation, as a monk or mendicant, without an
address. He takes formal vows of sannyasa. His wife is also encouraged to take sannyasa and go
separate ways. Note that Sannyasa is not for young people ,except for a few. Others take to Sannaysa
only in the fourth stage, after much preparation of the earlier three stages.
When one learns the spirituality in this sense, the four stages constitute a well-ordered system to
take thousands to spiritual fulfillment.

At this point let us also touch upon the four aspects of life : Dharma {righteousness}, Artha
{prosperity and success in life}, Kama {pleasures in life} and lastly moksha {liberation}.If one
follows the first three aspects and leads a ‘balanced life’, he will be liberated.This was one of the
main plank of Hindu social life and the ladder to spiritual fulfillment. In other words, you achieve
prosperity and success by righteous means.Then you enjoy the rightful pleasures of life—not
negating the physical and mental pleasures.Then you get ready for intuitive perceptions leading to

In Hinduism, karma beliefs play a large part. Karma means work, it also means ‘effect of past
actions’. “What you sow ,you reap.” Every act of ours, good and bad, comes back to us through
others. If we are angry and speak foul words, we are going to be receiving similar things from others
,may be in some other situation. The correlation from our acts to the rebound effects is not easy,
because there is always some time delay. In physics, Newton’s third law states that the action and
reaction are equal and opposite. But , in physics, the reaction is immediate. But not in real life in
terms of karma concepts. The effect of karma may be experienced or felt after even a few years or
later part of life.
Hinduism also states that the effect of past actions are carried on from one birth to the next. One of
my language teachers used to tell us that the effects of past actions are carried over for seven births.
Our present problems and gifts are the dividends of past investments over seven lives.
This karma concept involves a major understanding of our relationship with God or the Supreme
Being. Hindus, in a strict sense, do not blame God for good or bad things, but ascribe that to their
own past actions. This means that God does not dispense punishments or pass judgements. There is
no ‘judgement day’ when the souls are examined and sent to heaven or hell. In fact we experience the
effects on earth, in this life or carried over to future lives.

This concept is fully accepted by Hindus from childhood. As a result they may become more
restrained in their behavior and in their performance of duties. What about the God’s role in giving
relief from bad actions? Can bad effects be annulled by good actions, by atonement or by the grace of
Saints or Gods who may be petitioned? The answer is yes. But a qualified yes. You have to
experience the effects of bad karma, but in a reduced or toned down manner.That means you may
experience a notional or token pain if you had done lot of good acts to mitigate the effects of past
deeds. The concept of charity is grounded on its mitigating the effect of past actions.
[ The concept of ‘Karma’ as a basic tenet is difficult for western minds to grasp and appreciate.
Those who have stayed or lived in India for more than a year are able to understand and appreciate
this concept better.]
Taking the concept of importance of charity, it takes many forms. But the spiritual discipline of
Hindus gives maximum importance to feeding the poor with food. It is not because poverty is so
prevalent in India. Poverty was not so prevalent a few centuries ago. But food is basic to human
existence. So you feed the poor with annadana [food-charity]. This is the most important form of
charity; then comes others like donating clothes or education.
Note: For many details and forms of worship, you may visit my two websites:
www.freewebs.com/nksrinivasan and www.freewebs.com/nksrinivasan You will also find in the first
website, a page on books relevant to Hinduism.
Ethical Approach
Spirituality and ethics go together. It is alright to talk about crazy-wisdom traditions in Buddhism
for individuals who have gone beyond the limitations of human thought. But for millions of devout

spiritually minded persons, ethical foundations of personality is important. Hindus , in their penchant
for practical discipline, have always stressed ‘speaking the truth’ as the most important ethical
principle. Satyam means ‘truth’. One should not utter lies even for expediency of a situation, though
some puranic tales support telling lies if it serves some means with a good goal or end; that is , end
justifies the means.But this is not proper spirituality of the Hindus, in my humble opinion..
Going one step further, spirituality begins when one’s thought, speech and actions are synchronized
or tally with each other.To think a bad thought , but clothe them with sweet words or pretend to act

well, is indeed bad and unethical. To integrate one’s thought, speech and action is the first step in
spirituality.{these days people talk of 'poiltically correct' statements,meaning apparent lies.}
Concluding remarks
The spiritual foundations of Hinduism are clear and defined easily. It is not easy to practice many of
them. It is here that spiritual disciplines –chanting, prayer, devotion to a guru and God, temple
worship, self-enquiry, company of saints [sadhu-sangha], meditation –play a great part. These
disciplines need instruction and guidance from a teacher or guru for many years..Let us not
underestimate the difficulty in this path.
Book-learning, reading the scriptures and week-end seminars or retreats are like sampling the
spiritual feast. One quality that overrides all others is deep faith.[Shraddha] .One needs patience and
perseverance as in all other, mundane fields. Humility is the corner stone of behavior for a great
devotee or saint. This is repeatedly stressed in spiritual literature. Hindu spiritual traditions further
add that ,in the final analysis, the Grace of the Divine is essential for Self-realization and liberation or
Om Shanti, Om Shanti, Om Shanti
Peace be to all!
In Shirdi Sai Smaran,
Srinivasan Nenmeli-K