This book is a guide to the nature and function of Hinduism. Hinduism is unique among the great world religions in that it had no founder but grew gradually over a period of five thousand years, absorbing and assimilating all the religions and cultural movements of India. Consequently it has no Bible or Koran or Dhammapadam to which controversies can be referred for resolution. Many works such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagawad-Gita are authoritative but none is exclusively so. As in Christianity there are several Hindu Schools of thought and Hinduism clearly outline their common beliefs and particular differences.
K.M. Sen was an Indian scholar, writer and a Sanskrit Professor. He was an acting Upacharyas of Visva-Bharati University (1953-54).
UNLIKE other world religions such as Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism, Hinduism did not have any one founder. It grew gradually over a period of five thousand years absorbing and assimilating all the religious and cultural movements of India. Consequently, it does not have a Bible or a Koran or a Dhammapadam to which controversies can be referred for resolution. The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita, the Ramayana, the Mandbharata, the Puranas, the books on the so-called `Six Systems of Philosophy', the songs of the Bhakti movements and of the mystics are all authoritative, but none is exclusively so. The different schools of thought have differed on a number of important questions, and even today their differences are by no means insignificant. This makes the task of writing a popular book on Hinduism very difficult, for it is not easy to decide what relative importance to attach to the different schools of thought. I do not know whether the knowledgeable reader will find my interpretation of relative values acceptable. I have tried to be as impersonal as possible, but this is a field where personal bias is difficult to avoid. For some time past my criticism of many books on Hindu philosophy has been that they attach too little importance to the religious movements of the lower strata of society by concentrating on the documents of the more educated section of the people. In trying to incorporate the philosophies of the popular religious movements, I have attempted to provide what appears to me to be a wider view. I hope that most readers will find this presentation to be balanced, though I am well aware that this is a field where opinions cannot but differ.
I have addressed this book to readers without any previous knowledge of Hinduism. I have, therefore, tried to explain all concepts that may appear to the reader to be new. I have not attempted to make him an expert on Hinduism. There is a vast number of large volumes competently written on Hinduism, which the interested reader can easily look up. This book is meant as no more than an introduction, partly to give some basic ideas about the nature and function of Hinduism to people who know nothing about it, and partly to stimulate them to read more about its I know that some readers will be disappointed by the limitations imposed on the scope of some of the chapters, for instance by the briefness of the chapter on ' The Six Systems of Philosophy', but that is entirely deliberate. I did not wish to add to the number of fat tomes on Hinduism and have tried to write something that can be read even by those with much else to do. The more scholarly reader must, I fear, seek satisfaction elsewhere, though he may perhaps use this as a first introduction, presenting, I hope, the basic features of most Hindu schools of thought.
I must give some explanation of the scheme of the book. In Part I, the nature and the ideas of the Hindu schools of thought are discussed. In Part II, the evolution of Hindu thought and practices is studied historically. And in Part III, I have presented a collection of extracts from various Hindu documents. The reader can, I hope, get some of the ideas first-hand through reading these extracts, which cover a fairly wide area.
Finally, I must acknowledge the help and assistance I have received from my friends and colleagues in writing this book. My education and background are almost completely Oriental and my thoughts find easier expression in Indian languages than in English. Almost all my works so far have been in Indian languages, and I would have had great difficulty in producing this book in English but for the help of my friends and well-wishers. They have also assisted me in various other ways in the writing of this book. I am particularly grateful to Dr Sisir Kumar Ghosh for his active help and cooperation. I have also received considerable assistance from my grandson Dr Amartya Kumar Sen in the presentation and arrangement of the book.
Some four hundred years ago, there lived in India a poet-saint called Rajjab. When it was known that Rajjab had received his `illumination', men from far and near came to him and asked : 'What is it that you see ? What is it that you hear ?' He answered: 'I see the eternal play of life. I hear heavenly voices singing, "Give form to the yet unformed, speak out and express.
Life seeks for expression, it must speak out, as Rajjab put it. Man has to work and toil to satisfy his physical needs. But this is not enough for him; he wants something more, something which more than three thousand years ago the Atharvaveda praised in its hymn to Superfluity' (Ucchishta Sukta). First there is the feeling of wonder and awe at the mysteries of existence. In Hinduism, we find this in the Vedic Samhitas, composed mainly in the second millennium. B.C. In the words of Rabindranath Tagore these were 'a poetic testament of a people's collective reaction to the wonder and awe of existence. A people of vigorous and un-sophisticated imagination awakened at the very dawn of civilization to a sense of the inexhaustible mystery that is implicit in life."- This leads to speculation, which in turn leads to theories of existence and life such as we find in the Upanishads (c. 800 n.c.) and in later Hindu philosophy.
This is one aspect of the Hindu religion. Another is its moral code of behaviour. Every religion tends to find a conflict between what men do and what, according to its values, men ought to do. This conflict is closely linked with man's concept of the nature of the universe. Once men are recognized to be the creation of the Supreme and all men are recognized to be brothers, the ideals of selfless service and sacrifice become obvious. Once the Upanishads reveal their doctrine of the all-pervading God, the ideal of selfless work preached by the Bhagavad-Gita is difficult to avoid.
We are living today in an age of science, and in many respects we are more fortunate than were our predecessors. It would be rash to say, however, that we feel more secure today than our ancestors did. It would be even more difficult to claim that our acquisitive society has achieved a harmony of individual and social living. Modern science and the social developments connected with it constitute a challenge as well as an opportunity. I do not claim that Hinduism has a complete answer to these perplexing problems of our age. But perhaps its basic beliefs and philosophy are not irrelevant to the problems of the modern world, and may perhaps help us to recognize the full significance of some of the questions that have been raised by the difficulties of this age. It is in this context that an account of the central tenets of Hinduism can be justified. In the past these tenets have influenced the thinking of neatly half the population of the world; partly through Hinduism itself; but also through its offshoots such as Jainism and Buddhism. That itself is perhaps a sufficient apology for writing this book. But it is the author's belief that Hindu philosophy, so far from being merely a matter of the past, has great relevance also to the problems of the present.
To explain the principles of Hinduism to people un-familiar with its frame of reference is a difficult task. For one thing, some of the terms used do not have exact synonyms in the European languages. Almost every writer on Hinduism is forced to point out that dharma and religion are not the same thing; a mandira is not a Hindu church; jati has been translated as caste, but it is an unhappy rendering. A word so important to Hindu philosophy as sadhand has no equivalent in English. This is comparable with the difficulty in finding exact synonyms for such words and ideas as ' cross ' and 'charity' in non-Christian cultures and languages.
The definition of Hinduism presents another difficulty. Hinduism is more like a tree that has grown gradually than like a building that has been erected by some great architect at some definite point in time. It contains within it, as we shall see, the influences of many cultures, and the body of Hindu thought thus offers as much variety as the Indian nation itself. It is not surprising, therefore, that A. C. Bouquet, writing on Comparative Religion, found that `India in particular furnishes within its limits examples of every conceivable type of attempt at the solution of the religious problem'.1 The cultures of the Dravidian and the non-Dravidian peoples before the so-called Aryan invasion, the actual Sanskritized Aryan culture, the culture of the later invaders, the influences of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism (to which Hinduism gave birth) and of Islam and Christianity (which came from outside) can be traced at various stages of the evolution of Hindu thought.
This does not mean, as has sometimes been suggested, that the various branches of Hindu religion really have nothing in common. Doctrines have varied somewhat from school to school, but there is a certain basic unity among all these theories. Part of the reason why different answers have been given by different schools is that different questions have been asked. And even when the ideas have been genuinely different from one another, there has remained a certain unity of religious assumptions. This would explain why such apparently contradictory philosophies as the monism (` God alone is real') of Samkara and the dualism (` When shall I be able to lay myself at Your feet ? ') of the Bhakti school have led to no violent conflict. Another source of unity is what some Indian philosophers called caritra, conduct or character. Provided there was a certain agreement on modes of conduct and on the values determining behaviour, very considerable nonconformism of religious ideas has been allowed. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Hindus look upon even Buddhism as a branch of Hinduism.
This book is divided into two parts. The first deals with the important features of Hindu religious thought and practice, while in the second a short history of the growth of Hinduism from the earliest time has been attempted. Naturally, in a book as short as this, I have not been able to give anything like a comprehensive account of Hinduism. Instead I have tried to provide a picture of what appear to me to be the main tendencies and characteristics of Hinduism, and to study the stages through which Hinduism has passed in Indian history.
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