By Swami Bhaskarananda
Some scholars have called Hinduism a way of life. Should we suppose that Hinduism is unique in being a way of life, while other religions are not? Most religions with their codes of conduct and scriptural injunctions and prohibitions exercise control over their adherents and modify their lifestyles. What is so special about Hinduism?
The specialty of Hinduism lies in the fact that everything in the life of a Hindu is dictated by his religion. The Agniveshya Grihyasutra (3/10/4) says that starting from inception in a mother’s womb, and until one’s body is taken to the cremation ground, a Hindu has to observe scriptural codes. The religious law books, which govern the life of a Hindu, are replete with instructions about every action in his or her life. According to the ancient lawgiver and sage Manu, it is the Shruti (i.e. the Vedas) and Smriti (traditions) yjay shall govern Hindu society. No violation of this dictate will be condoned. Says Manu, “Every twice-born man (dwija), who, relying on the Institutes of dialectics, treats with contempt those two sources (of the sacred law), must be cast out by the virtuous, as an atheist and a scorner of the Veda.”
Every important event of Hindu life has to be sanctified through religious observance. This ritualistic sanctification or sacrament is called samskâra in Sanskrit. There are many such samskâras, pertaining to (1) marriage (vivâha), (2) the fire-ceremony sanctifying marriage (kushandikâ), (3) the consummation of marriage (garbhâdhâna), (4) the ritualistic prayer for the birth of a male child (pungsavana), (5) the prayer-ritual for the well-being of the pregnant woman (sîmontonnayana), (6) the birth of a child (jâtakarma), (7) the naming of a baby (nâmakarana), (8) giving a baby its first solid food (annaprâshana), (9) a baby’s first hair-cut (chudâkarana), (10) the ritualistic piercing of a baby’s ear (karnavedha), (11) introduction of a child to reading and writing (vidyârambha), (12) investing a child with the sacred thread (upanayana), and (13) the returning-home-ceremony after a student completes his or her education at the teacher’s home. (In the Vedic period students had to live in their teacher’s home and study until graduation.)
Other than the above, there are prescribed sanctifying rituals for (1) the funeral (antyeshti-kriyâ), (2) post-funeral honoring of the departed (shrâddha-Kriyâ), (3) the ceremony connected with the foundation of a new building (vâstu-Pûjâ), (4) entering a newly-built house (griha-pravesha), (5) the attainment of puberty for girls, and (6) spiritual initiation from a teacher (dîkshâ).
Hinduism recognizes four goals of human life:
- kâma—satisfying the desire for sense pleasure.
- artha—acquisition of worldly possessions or money.
- dharma—observance of religious duties.
- moksha—liberation achieved through God-realization.
Among these four, kâma—the gratification of the urge for sense pleasure—is considered the lowest, because this urge is common to both man and animals.
Artha—the urge to acquire and accumulate worldly possessions—is noticeable mainly in human beings, not so much in animals and other subhuman beings. Therefore, artha is considered superior to kâma.
The third goal, dharma—the observance of religious duties—is no other than a training in self-sacrifice. Kâma and artha are rooted in selfishness, dharma is not. Therefore, dharma is considered superior to kâma and artha.
The Hindu way of life consists in the performance of a series of religious duties or dharma as dictated by the scriptures. Even in order to acquire worldly possessions or to satisfy his passions a Hindu must hold on to dharma. This is why artha and kama—which are mentioned as two separate goals different from dharma—are placed under the category of dharma by some scholars.
Moksha (liberation) can be achieved only through the realization of God. Hinduism, which believes in God’s omnipresence, speaks of the presence of Divinity in every human being. At any given point of time Divinity is equally present in all human beings, but not equally manifest in them. The purpose of spiritual practice is to manifest this inherent Divinity. When this Divinity becomes fully manifest, a person is said to have become spiritually illumined or liberated; he is said to have attained moksha.
This Divinity is the true Self of man. It forms the very core of man’s existence. One can give up whatever is extraneous, but not that which forms the very core of one’s “being.” Sooner or later this true Self, or Divinity, must manifest itself. All without any exception will eventually attain moksha. Conscious effort or sincere spiritual practice, however, can help one to achieve this goal faster.
While introducing the laws that governed the Hindu society the Hindu sages always kept in mind this most important goal of human life—moksha. The samskâras or sanctifying rites were devised by them to make Hindus aware of this spiritual goal by associating all their activities with God.
Moreover, utmost importance was given to the practice of self-sacrifice. A little thinking will reveal that the root cause of all evil is selfishness. Conversely, the root cause of whatever is good is unselfishness. This is why Swami Vivekananda in one of his talks said, “Unselfishness is God.”
In ancient times, as dictated by the scriptures, all Hindus were expected to go through four stages of life—brahmacharya (the life of a student), gârhasthya (the life of a house-holder), vânaprastha (the life of a forest-dwelling ascetic) and sannyâsa (the life of a renunciate monk). These stages were devised by the sages to gradually lead Hindus from enjoyment to ultimate renunciation. The derivative meaning of the word sannyâsa is “supreme renunciation.” And the greatest renunciation is renunciation of selfishness.
In the Taittirîya Upanishad we read a farewell address given by a teacher to his departing students. The students, on completion of their education, were leaving their teacher’s residence to go back to their own homes. In that address, among other things, the teacher advised his students to be truthful, self-sacrificing, generous, respectful to parents, teachers and guests, and to those who are noble and great.
The entire marriage procedure in Hinduism is an elaborate religious ritual for the bridegroom and the bride. The procedure mainly consists of fasting, prayer and worship. Their married life is meant to be the practice of dharma—the practice of self-sacrifice. The wife is called Sahadharminî, which means “the partner in spiritual life.” Who is a good husband? A good husband is he who willingly and lovingly makes self-sacrifice for his wife. Similarly, a good wife makes willing and loving self-sacrifice for her husband. The same is true for a good parent, good son, good daughter and a good friend.
According to the Mahâ-Nirvâna-Tantra the following are some of the duties of a householder:
The goal of a householder is to realize God. To achieve this goal he should perform all his duties as enjoined by the scriptures. He should constantly work by surrendering the fruits of his actions to God. He should earn a living through honest means and remember that his life is for the service of God and the poor and helpless. He should always try to please his parents looking upon them as tangible representatives of God.
A householder must not eat before providing food for his parents, his wife and children, and the poor. He should undergo a thousand troubles in order to serve his parents because he must not forget that he owes his body to them.
He must never scold, hurt the feelings of his wife, or show anger towards her. He must maintain complete fidelity to his wife. He will go to the darkest hell if he even craves mentally another woman. He must always please his wife with money, clothes, love, faithfulness, and sweet words, and never do anything to hurt her.
He must not talk in public of his own fame, nor should he brag about his wealth, power or position. He must not talk about his poverty either.
He should always be enthusiastic and active. He must be brave and fight to resist his enemies like a hero. He must not act like a coward and try to rationalize his cowardice by talking about non-resistance or non-violence. To his friends and relatives, however, he will be as gentle as a lamb.
If a householder be rich and yet does not help his needy relatives and the poor, he is a brute, and not a human being.
A householder must never show respect to the wicked nor condone wickedness. He must respect those who are good and endowed with noble qualities. He should enter into friendship with only those who are reliable.
A householder who does not struggle to become wealthy through honest means is failing in his moral duty. If he is lazy and leads an idle life, he should be considered immoral. He must be enthusiastic in earning money in order to help others who depend on him.
A householder should engage in social service for the benefit of people. Such selfless action will help the householder to attain the same spiritual goal as the greatest Yogi.
Today, because of the changed times and altered lifestyles of the Hindus, not all the samskâras or traditions mentioned above are strictly followed. Under special circumstances, such lapses are condoned by Hinduism. For instance, the scriptures say that a Hindu need not strictly observe the scriptural injunctions and prohibitions in a foreign land if the circumstances there are not conducive to such an observance.
Through the passage of time the observance of four stages of life as dictated by Hindu tradition—brahmacharya, gârhasthya, vânaprastha and sannyâsa—has lost its ancient rigour. Today’s Hindus rarely move beyond the gârhasthya stage. The ancient tradition of Guru-griha-vâsa has long been abandoned. Living with teachers who were wonderful role models had its tremendous beneficial impact on the students. Lately in the schools, colleges and universities in India the environment has so deteriorated that the students in general can no longer be truthfully called Brahmachâris. Aside from that, in all truth most of the teachers today cannot be called role models anymore because they lack the wonderful virtues that were abundantly present in the teachers of the Upanishadic days.
Giving or taking a dowry in marriage has been a long-standing custom in the Hindu society even though the sages and scriptures of Hinduism have strongly condemned this practice. Apastamba Smriti and Manu Smriti, and scriptures like Nârada Purâna, have strongly condemned the dowry system. In olden times a dowry used to be demanded by the father or guardian of the bride. In recent times, however, it is the father of the bridegroom who demands a dowry from the bride’s parents or guardians. Manu said, “No father who knows (the sacred law) must take even the smallest gratuity (dowry) for his daughter; for a man who, through avarice, takes a gratuity, is a seller of his offspring.” Many saints and reformers in Hinduism also have condemned this dowry system. Nevertheless, in certain parts of India today, the bride’s parents are often pressured by the bridegroom’s family to give a dowry for their daughter’s marriage. This practice, in violation of the dictates of the scriptures and the saints, has turned into a social evil. As a result of this dowry system, in some parts of India married couples do not even want daughters; they want only sons!. Many girls remain unmarried because their parents are not rich enough to pay a fat dowry for their marriages. Some girls out of frustration even commit suicide. Nothing can be more shameful than the fact that there are some “dowry deaths” in India every year. Should other efforts fail, young and idealistic Hindu men and women must come forward and start a movement to eradicate this evil.
In spite of such violations the vast majority of the Hindus today still observe many of the above samskâras. No culture or society in this world can claim perfection. Perfection on a societal basis will never be achieved. Nevertheless, all progressive societies crave perfection. Imperfection in a society is measured by its evils. And every evil in a society is caused by the selfishness of one or more of its members. Only the willing and loving self-sacrifice of its members can make a society better. Hindu society has been trying to achieve this through its time-honored ideal of self-sacrifice and service.