All About Hinduism

Guru Purnima

 

Today is Guru Purnima. The full moon night of the month Ashaad when we honour the memory of the great sage Ved Vyasa who compiled the Vedas and our own gurus who guide us.

 India has had a long tradition of revering and worshipping teachers. The guru or the teacher holds a place of paramount importance in our lives and our society. So important is the guru that he is considered to be a form of the Supreme Brahman, the Godhead of all knowledge.

 In praise of the guru we chant:

 गुरुर्ब्रह्मा गुरुर्विष्णुर्गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः ।

गुरुरेव परं ब्रह्म तस्मै श्रीगुरवे नमः ॥१॥

Gurur-Brahmaa Gurur-Vissnnur-Gururdevo Maheshvarah |

Gurure[-I]va Param Brahma Tasmai Shrii-Gurave Namah ||1||

 Meaning:

1.1: The Guru is Brahma, the Guru is Vishnu, the Guru Deva is Maheswara (Shiva),

1.2: The Guru is the Para-Brahman (Supreme Brahman); Salutations to that Guru.

 Although the guru has become synonymous with spiritual teachers and leaders, a guru is anyone who instructs or guides us in any area of our lives.The word ‘guru’ is made up of two words, ‘gu’ meaning darkness and ‘ru’ meaning light. A guru is someone who leads us from darkness into light.

In the ancient gurukul system, children left their homes at the age of 6 or 7 and went to live with a guru in his forest academy till they reached adulthood. The guru became their guardian and teacher and was responsible for preparing the students not just in academics and other skills but also for life. 

 This tradition continues unbroken in some areas of learning even today. All the classical and performing arts are still passed down directly from guru to shishya in a personal and often life long association.

 Our earliest teachers are our parents, or grandparents. Then our school teachers and teachers of the arts. When we get older we many seek a spiritual guru.

 Today we honour all of them. School children will bring flowers for their teachers. Students of art and music will pay their respects to their teachers and seek their blessings by touching their feet. And spiritual aspirants will worship their gurus and intensify their sadhana. Aum.

 

 For another more detailed write-up on Guru Purnima here is a link to the wonderful Speaking Tree.

http://www.speakingtree.in/spiritual-blogs/seekers/faith-and-rituals/gurupurnima-the-festival-of-expressing-gratitude

 

 

Upanishads- Part 1

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( Extracted from The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran. There are many commentaries on the Upanishads but I will for the purpose of the next few posts stick to this book for the sake of coherence.)

What is an Upanishad?

An Upanishad is an utterance of mystical truth that has come down to us as an attachment to the Vedas, the ancient and scared hymn collections.

Etymologically the word ‘Upanishad’ suggests “sitting down near”: that is, at the feet of an illumined teacher or guru in an intimate session of spiritual instruction. In the Upanishads the Guru takes many forms and the settings are dramatic: a wife asks her husband about immortality, a king seeks instruction from a sage; one teenage boy is taught by Death himself, another by fire, beasts and birds. Sometimes the sages are women.

The Upanishads record such sessions but their purpose is not so much instruction as inspiration. They are mean to be expounded by the teacher from the basis of personal experience.

Although we speak of them together as a body, the Upanishads are not part of a whole like chapters in a book. Each is complete in itself, an ecstatic snapshot of transcendent Reality.

When the texts were composed and by whom we don’t know. The sages who gave them to us did not care to leave their names: the truths they set down were eternal, and the identity of those who arranged the words was irrelevant.

Fascinatingly, although the Upanishads are attached to the Vedas, they seem to come from an altogether different world. While the Vedas look outward in reverence and awe of the phenomenal world, the Upanishads look inward, finding the powers of nature only an expression of the awe-inspiring powers of human consciousness.

They tell us that there is a Reality underlying life which rituals cannot reach. They teach that this Reality is the essence of every created thing, and the same Reality is our real Self, so that each of us is one with the power that created and sustains the universe.

And, finally, they testify that this reality can be realised directly, without the mediation of priests or rituals or any of the structures of organised religion, not after death but in this life. And, that is the purpose for which each of us been born and the goal to toward which evolution moves.

How did the sages realise this Truth they testify to? By adopting what we know today as the Scientific Method of questioning and investigating phenomena. We’ll look at Upanishads as the Supreme Science in the next part of the series.

Vedas- An Introduction by Eknath Easwaran.

As I was drafting my post on the Upanishads based on my favourite translation of all times, The Upanishads by Eknath Easwaran, I read again his introduction to the Vedas. And, although my last post gives a brief summary, I think Easwaran’s introduction gives the essence and makes a wonderful starting point in the quest to understanding the Upanishads.

So here it is in an abridged form….

The religion of the ancient dwellers of the Indus Valley was based on ritual sacrifice and lyrical, life-affirming hymns meant for incantation in an ancient form of Sanskrit.

These hymns dating back from perhaps 1500 B.C reveal an intimate, almost mystical bond between worshipper and environment, a simultaneous sense of awe and kinship with the spirit that dwells in all things. Even in translation they have compelling beauty. They worship natural forces and the elemental powers of life: sun and wind, storm and rain, dawn and night, earth and heaven, fire and offering.

These powers are the devas, gods and goddesses. In hymns they seem very near, present before us in the forms and forces of the natural world. Fire or Agni is worshipped as the actual fire on the hearth or altar and as the divine priest who carries the sacrificial offerings to the gods. The storm is Indra, leader of the gods, lord of war and thunder who rides on his swift chariot to fight the demons of the Sky. The wind is Vayu. Night is Rati and dawn is Usha, the loveliest and most luminous of all goddesses.The sun is Surya who rides his chariot across the sky, or Savitri the giver of life. And death is Yama, the first being to die and thereby first in the underworld.

Throughout the hymns of this early age there is little or no trace of fear.The forces of life are approached with loving reverence and awe, as allies of humanity in a world that is essentially friendly so long as its secrets are understood. And despite the pantheon of deities, it seems clear even in the earliest hymns that one Supreme Being is worshipped in different aspects. ‘Truth is one,’ one hymn proclaims, ‘though the wise call it by many names.’

These poetic outpourings, were chanted while offerings were poured into the fire. Such fire ceremonies were performed for the Kshatriyas, warriors and rulers of clans by the Brahmins whose function in society was to preserve rites already too ancient to be understood.

As time passed, Brahmins produced commentaries to explain the meaning of these ancient rites. Hymns and commentaries together became a sacred heritage passed from generation to generation. These are the Vedas, India’s scriptures.

Veda comes from the root vid, ‘to know’. TheVedas, Hindus believe are revealed knowledge or Shruti, given to humanity at the dawn of time. They exist in four collections: Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva, with Rig Veda being the oldest.

The first part of each collection, called karma-kanda, preserves the hymns and philosophical interpretations of rituals used in Hindu worship to this day.

The second part, called jnana-kanda, concerns not ritual but wisdom: what is life about; what death means; what the human being is; what is the nature of the Godhead that sustains us; in short the burning questions that men and women have asked in every age.

The ritual section of the Vedas define the religion of a particular culture; but the second part, the Upanishads, is Universal and as relevant to the world today as it was to Hindus five thousand years ago.

So what is an Upanishad?

We will look at it in some detail in next series of posts.

(Meanwhile, to read one of the oldest and most beautiful hymns on Creation from the Rig Veda, click here)

The Vedas

Although Hinduism famously has no founder and is believed to have grown organically from a collective consciousness and a way of life, all Hindu beliefs and practices find their source in the Vedas. Even today Vedas are widely accepted as the final authority on Hinduism and have greatly influenced Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. Image

The word ‘Veda’ comes from the root ‘vid’,to know. Veda means knowledge.

There are two kinds of knowledge. Shruti, that which is heard or revealed and Smriti, that which is remembered.

The Vedas are Shruti and other scriptures like the Puranas and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are Smriti.

Hindus believe the Vedas are eternal truths revealed to great rishis of ancient times.The word ‘rishi’ means a ‘seer’ and comes from the root, dris which means to see. A rishi is a seer of mantra or thought. The thought already exists as eternal Truth. A rishi only discovers it spiritually.

In that sense the Vedas are eternal. The books may be destroyed but the knowledge cannot be destroyed.

ImageAs for the actual written texts, scholars believe that they were written down some 2,500 years ago, though the tradition often dates them to the beginning of Kali-yuga (circa 3000 BCE). The following is an overview of the four Vedas.

The Rig-Veda

The most important and oldest of the Vedas. It is divided into ten books (called mandalas) and has 1028 hymns in praise of various deities. These include Indra, Agni, Vishnu, Rudra, Varuna, and other early or “Vedic gods.” It also contains the famous Gayatri mantra and the prayer called the Purusha Shukta (the story of Primal Man).

The Yajur-Veda

A priestly handbook for use in the performance of yajnas (sacrifices) It is divided into two sections, the earlier “black” and the more recent “white.”

Sama-Veda

This veda is purely a collection of melodies,‘saman’ to be sung during worship. The hymns in the Sama Veda, used as musical notes, were almost completely drawn from the Rig Veda and have no distinctive lesson of their own. Hence it is considered as a reduced version of the Rig Veda.

Atharva-Veda

Contains hymns, mantras and incantations.

Within each of the four books there are four types of composition, or divisions, as shown below.

The Samhitas – literally “collections,” in this case of hymns and mantras. They form the Veda proper.

The Brahmanas – prose manuals of ritual and prayer for the guiding priests. They tend to explain the Samhitas. They also contain early versions of some stories.

The Aranyakas – literally “forest books” for hermits and saints. They are philosophical treatises.

The Upanishads – books of philosophy, also called “Vedanta,” the end or conclusion of the Vedas.

There are also two important bodies of supplementary literature, related closely to the Vedas, Vedangas and Upvedas.

The Vedangas (limbs of the Vedas), expound the sciences required to understand and apply the Vedas.

The Upavedas (usually considered smriti) deal with the four traditional arts and sciences.

The Six Vedangas are:

Kalpa (ritual detail)

Siksha (pronunciation)

Vyakarana (grammar)

Nirukti (etymology)

Chandas (metre)

Jyotisha (astronomy/astrology)

The Four Upavedas explain arts and sciences,

Ayur-veda (medicine)

Gandharva-veda (music and dance)

Dhanur-veda (warfare)

Shilpa-veda (architecture)

(Based on Swami Sivananda’s  book Bliss Divine and the ISKON Heart of Hinduism website.)

In the next post we’ll look at the Upanishads, the sublime essence of the Vedas.

Of Spirit and Poetry

I must apologise for not posting anything for a while. Life got in the way. As it sometimes does. But I am back now and there is some good news to share. My very first book, a collection of poems and art goes to the printers today. Super excited!

With poetry still on my mind, I am reminded of all the wonderful songs and verses by the poet saints of India. In the spirit of the moment I am sharing a few of my favourites here for you to enjoy.

All religions have a wonderful spin-off – inspired creative expressions that come from depths of the soul. Whether it is in art and architecture or literature and music some of the most fantastic works in history have come from a deeply religious or spiritual place.

On this blog I hope to keep bringing you both sublime and awesome works from ancient and contemporary Hinduism.

But for now the poems.

These are taken from the book Women in Praise of the Sacred and are by two well known women saints of India, Mirabai and Mahadeviyakka.

What Use for Words

                               By Mahadeviyakka, 12th Century.

I do not call it his sign,

I do not call it becoming one with his sign.

I do not call it union,

I do not call it harmony with union.

I do not say something has happened,

I do not say nothing as happened.

I will not name it You,

I will not name it I.

Now that the White Jasmine Lord is myself,

What use for words at all?                         

(Mahadeviyakka was born in the Indian village of Udatadi, and wrote in the Kannada language. A devotee of Shiva she gave up conventional dress along with conventional life, and traveled the countryside alone. Stories say that when she died in her twenties she disappeared into a burst of light.)

                             It’’s True I Went to the Market

                                                              by Mirabai, 15th Century.

My friend, I went to the market and bought the Dark One.

You claim by night, I claim by day.

Actually I was beating a drum all the time I was buying him.

You say I gave too much; I say too little.

Actually I put him on a scale before I bought him.

What I paid was my social body, my town body, my family body,

 and all my inherited jewels.

Mirabai says: the Dark One is my husband now.

Be with me when I lie down; you promised me this in an earlier life.

( Mirabai the most famous of all the Northern Indian women bhakti poets, was married to the crown prince of Mewar. But, like Mahadeviyakka three centuries before, soon came to reject any husband but her Lord- Krishna also known as Giridhar.)

Kali the Fierce Mother

Parvati watched her son, Skanda, struggling to defeat the demon Raktabeej on the battlefield. The demon was winning. A worried Parvati knitted her brows. From the centre of her brows emerged Kali, dark as death, long disheveled hair covering her naked body. With bloodshot eyes and her enormous tongue hanging out, she rushed to strike terror in the hearts of  all the demons.kali 2

Kali is thus the terrifying face of a loving mother. But so often she is mistaken for the terror she portrays.

The Encylopedia Britannica describes Kali as the “ Major Hindu goddess whose iconography, cult and mythology commonly associate her with death,sexuality,violence and paradoxically in some of her later historical appearances, motherly love.” This description is an ill-informed, gross misinterpretation of a sublime idea.

To understand Kali, we must get to her roots, look beneath the dark veneer.

Kali comes from the Sanskrit word Kala meaning time. Time is ultimate leveler. Nothing escapes the all-consuming march of time.The Mahanirvana Tantra says,”Just as all colours disappear in black,so all names and forms disappear in her.” Kali is All and Nothing. Everything ultimately dissolves in to infinite Nothingness.

For Kali is none other than Parvati, the timeless Shakti, the creative energy that is constantly manifesting around us.

Just as Shiva destroys so that he many create, so does his consort Kali. As Mahakala and Mahakali ( the masculine and feminine principles of the Great Time), they are the regenerative forces of Nature. Nature, both within and without.

In Hindu mythology demons often represent the evil with us. Parvati could not see her son losing in his fight against the demons so she came to his rescue. So does Ma Kali, the dark mother, help her children who seek her refuge. But a mother’s love is tough. She will let her children fall and be bruised so that they may learn to walk.

So yes, in a way Kali brings death but by way of transformation. She destroys the ego, the illusory view of reality. We are more than just this body, she reminds us by wearing garlands of skulls and dismembered limbs.

Hence there is the practice in some fringe cults of offering animal sacrifices (goats) to Kali by her devotees who seek to be liberated. Then there are those devotees who have shunned society and rejected everything to do with the material world and are found praying to Shiva and Kali on cremation grounds. With ashes smeared on their bodies, they meditate on the impermanent nature of the world.

This is not to say that they worship Death. In none of the stories or scriptures is Kali associated with cannibalism as some non-Hindus believe. Nor is Kali associated with human death in any stories or scriptures. Contrary to common belief, Kali is not the goddess of Death. Yama is the Hindu god of death.

Kali’s naked form and the tantric practice of worshiping Shiva and Kali as the divine couple are often associated with sexuality but Kali’s nudity is primeval and her connection with Shiva is fundamental, like nature.

Kali is first mentioned in the Vedas as one of the seven tongues of the fire Agni. She was described as the black tongue of Time.

In time, Kali herself has evolved and transformed into the fierce Mother, timeless and all encompassing, who with her compassion destroys our veil of ignorance.

Hindu Devas and their Japanese Avatars

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As much as I like to discover the esoteric meaning of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, I am equally fascinated by their history. Where they came from, how they evolved and their place in the world in present times. In my previous posts I have often touched upon other forms of the deities, as they are worshipped today, in other countries or religions.

A few days ago I came across an excellent post by Videshi Sutra on the integration of Hindu devas into Buddhism and their journey to Japan via China.  
Videshi Sutra says… 

This is a historical phenomenon, which entertains and fascinates me to no end. Buddhism had a huge impact on all East Asian cultures, especially on their pantheons of deities. On first glance it might seem odd that a reform movement, which rejected many of the core tenets of Vedic religion would transmit a belief in Vedic deities. This apparent oddity is a misunderstanding of Buddhism’s “atheism,” and a misunderstanding of what a “Deva” actually is.

Most forms of Buddhism, while rejecting the concept of all-powerful gods or creator deities, openly accept the existence of powerful supernatural beings.

In the Buddhist pantheon, the Devas have generally converted to Buddhism and now serve as his protectors, the protectors of his teachings, or as helpers to mortals who are trying to achieve enlightenment.

To find out  more on how the Buddhist versions of Hindu gods were integrated into Japanese   culture ( with fantastic images) read the rest of the article here Hindu Devas Take a ( Silk Road) Trip to Japan!

Contemplating Ganesha

ImageGanesha the elephant-headed god, one of Hinduism’s most well known faces, is steeped in symbolism.

Over the ages, the story of Ganesha’s unusual birth and his unique form have been interpreted in various ways. For the purpose of this post I have taken the most widely accepted versions and in the true spirit of Hinduism given you my own intuitive understanding of them.

Ganesha is said to be the physical form of the symbol Aum. Aum is the symbol of Creation. It represents the unmanifest Shakti which manifests as Prakriti or Nature. Thus Ganesha born of Shakti represents all Creation.

The mantra Aum is also Pranava, the prime mantra through which all existence is known. ‘Pra’ means Prakriti and ‘nava’ is the boat which helps us navigate the endless ocean of Creation called Prakriti. So it is through her son that we may know the mother.

Hence, Ganesha is also associated with the Muladhara Chakra which is the seat of Shakti. By meditating on Ganesha the Kundalini Shakti is realised and awakened to remove all obstacles and transform us.

As Parvati created Ganesha by herself with no help from Shiva, he is our direct link to Nature of which we are also a part. Ganesha leads us to ourselves.

Parvati created Ganesha so that he may guard her honour. Hence Ganesha is portrayed as the typical mother’s boy who adores her and above all protects her.  Thus he is ‘Ganesha- Guardian of all Beings’. In protecting all of Creation, he protects Prakriti his mother.

Adi Shankaracharya who established Ganesha as one of the five main deities said this of Ganesha,

“Though Ganesha is worshiped as the elephant-headed God, the form (swaroop) is just to bring out the formless (parabrahma roopa).
He is, ‘Ajam Nirvikalpam Niraakaaramekam.’ This means Ganesha is unborn (ajam), he is without attributes( Nirvikalpa), he is formless (Niraakaar) and he symbolizes the consciousness which is omnipresent.” Which brings us back to why Ganesha is associated with Aum.

As for Ganesha’s form, the big elephant head symbolizes intelligence and wisdom. His big ears pick up on the softest of prayers whispered by his devotees. His small shrewd eyes miss nothing and his trunk represents discretion. An elephant may use his trunk to fell trees or pick up a blade of grass depending on the situation.

He is Ekdanta, the one with a single tusk. This stands for single mindedness.His big belly holds all the knowledge of the Universe.

An elephant is not hindered by any obstacle in his path. He simply steps over it or goes around it. Hence Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and of his four arms one is raised in the Abhaya mudra, which says to his devotees, ‘fear not I shall protect you.’

The second hand holds a noose to rein in the wandering mind while the third has the goad to push people onto the path of righteousness. Finally, the fourth hand holds a sweet modak which shows his eternal childlike nature.

 Om Gan Ganapataye Namah !!

Parvati Creates Ganesha

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Up on Mt. Kailash while Shiva sat lost in meditation, Parvati his wife was getting lonely.  She had Shiva’s subjects for company and his faithful attendant Nandi took good care of her. Yet, Parvati longed for someone to call her own. She longed for a child.

Once when she was bathing, scrubbing sandalwood paste on her body, Parvati decided to make herself a child. She mixed the scrapings from her body with the clay from the river and lovingly created a young boy with it. He was so fair and beautiful that she breathed life into him.

Many months passed and one day while Parvati was in her cave and Ganesha stood outside guarding the entrance, Shiva returned home. Ganesha had strict instruction from his mother  to not let anyone in, so he forbade Shiva from entering the cave.  Furious at being stopped from going into his own home and unaware that the young boy was Parvati’s son, Shiva in a fit of temper cut the boy’s head off. When Parvati came out and saw what had happened she was overcome with grief and rage. She summoned all the goddesses to avenge the death of her son. A terrible war ensued and Shiva soon realized his mistake. He tried to calm Parvati down but she demanded he bring her son back to life.

Now Shiva didn’t know what to do so he approached Brahma, the Creator, for help. Brahma suggested they get the head of the first animal they find which is lying down facing North.  Shiva’s servants went into the forest looking for such an animal and returned with an elephant’s head. Shiva then placed the head on Ganesha’s lifeless body and resurrected him. Parvati was overjoyed but soon her heart sank at her son’s plight. “What kind of life will my son have stuck with an elephant’s head?” she asked Shiva.

Shiva promised Parvati that their son would be called Ganapati, Lord of all beings. Loved and adored by all, he would be worshiped first, before any other god.

And so we’ve come to love and adore this playful, clever little potbellied boy, darling of his parents and guardian of all beings. He is the remover of all obstacles. We chant his name before any auspicious work is begun and before any kind of worship. To him we pray for peace and harmony.

Historically however, it was only around  the fourth or the fifth century that Ganesha rose in prominence. It was during the reign of the Gupta dynasty when Hindu traditions shifted towards Brahmanism that Ganesha was established as one of the five prime deities.

Nonetheless, he is today one of Hinduism’s most favourite gods. He has truly become Lord of the People. I wonder if the rather charming anecdotes of Ganesha’s life have been largely responsible for his popularity. Or, is it because humans have a strange affinity towards elephants? We love elephants because they are so much like us. Or perhaps we just like someone who is not so perfect but wears his imperfections so well. Well, whatever it is, no Hindu home or life is complete without Ganesha in it.

Ganesha’s is also worshipped as the remover of obstacles by Jains and Buddhists. As Hinduism gradually spread to south east Asia so did the worship and iconography of Ganesha. Modified forms of Ganesha continue to be worshipped in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Burma Thailand, Combodia and in some Buddhist sects of China and Japan where he is known as Kangiten.

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5th century “image of Ganesha, consecrated by the Shahi King Khingala.” found at Garddez, Afghanistan.

I look forward to exploring some of the  symbolism behind Ganesha’s birth and form in my next post.

The Glory of Hanuman

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Prince Ram is the undisputed hero of the epic Ramayana but without the help of his devoted friend Hanuman, he may well have struggled to defeat the demon Ravana.

Hanuman leapt across an ocean, single handedly fought an army and moved a mountain to help Rama and his brother Laxman. Yet, when Ram asked Hanuman in wonder, “ O mighty hero, how did you cross the ocean? How did you burn down the Golden Lanka?” Hanuman replied, “By the power and glory of Thy name my Lord.”

Therein lies the true greatness of Hanuman. There have been many who were strong and powerful but none as humble as he. Hanuman did not see himself as the mighty hero that he was but simply as a devotee of Shri Ram. To serve Lord Ram was the only purpose of Hanuman’s life.

His unflinching devotion and humility make this much loved Monkey God a symbol of loyalty and selflessness. He is worshipped all over India either alone or along with Ram and Sita.

Hanuman, inspires men towards Purushartha, the courage and self-restraint needed to live a righteous life. A life of truth and selfless service.

On the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti Hindus celebrate the birth of this divine soul.

Hanuman was born on the full moon of the month of Chaitra to Anjana. It was all part of a divine plan. Vishnu had incarnated on earth as Ram to defeat the demon Ravana. To assist Rama, Shiva is believed to have taken the avatar of Hanuman. Together they restored peace on Earth.

You can read the full story of Hanuman’s birth interestingly told by Shiva here

Today many Hindus, especially men will observe a fast, offer special prayers and chant the Hanuman Chalisa or the Hanuman Ashtak.

As an avatar of Shiva and a true karma yogi, Hanuman is also dear to those who wish to follow the spiritual path.

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