Its Revelation, Its Symbols: An Essential View of Religion
by Swami Kriyananda
Hinduism is often omitted from rosters of the world's great religions. Everyone knows, of course, that Hinduism exists. Even so, it is confused in many people's minds with what they think of as Buddhism. For Buddhism fits into their concepts of what a religion ought to be. For one thing, it was founded by one individual, Gautama Buddha, who was a historic personage like Moses, Jesus, Lao Tse, Mohammed, and Zoroaster. Buddhism, moreover, like most other religions, has an organized structure (divided, like the others, into a number of sects), a set of specific dogmas, and an officially recognized Way. Moreover, like the other religions, it has its own set of clearly defined, "noble" principles for better living.
Hinduism, by contrast, seems to have merely "happened." Foreigners see in it such a bewildering array of gods and goddesses, of complex and seemingly incomprehensible ceremonies, and of confusing "explanations" for everything that most students of the subject end up merely bewildered.
A friend of mine years ago, a long-time devotee of yoga meditation practices, was able upon retirement to fulfill a lifelong dream by traveling to India. On arrival in Calcutta, he enthusiastically asked a guide to show him the spiritual sights. The man took him first to Kalighat Temple, where he was shown a goat being sacrificed to the "Divine Mother." So great was his shock that he returned immediately to his hotel, and expressed no further interest in seeing any further "spiritual" sights. When I encountered him a week later, I found him completely disillusioned with Hinduism, although still faithful to his meditation practices.
Even if the Westerner holds good intentions toward Indiaand my friend was certainly one such personhe may see Hinduism as containing some of the worst examples of paganism. Small wonder, then, that many people look upon Buddhism as the noblest representative of India's religion, and turn to it when wanting an Indian religion to place among the great religions of the world. For not only did Buddha found a religion: He was a religious reformer. Moreover, he offered a common-sense approach to self-betterment to which the modern mind can relate easily.
While Buddhism is relatively simple, Hinduism is complex. Hinduism recommends the worship of countless deities, many-armed, many-headed, with animal bodies or animal heads, dancing, playing on a variety of musical instruments. What, the foreigner asks, is going on? When he sees a goat being sacrificed in bloody ritual, is it any wonder he dismisses the whole show as idolatry in its most debased aspects?
By contrast, Buddhism seems, to Westerners especially, to offer a benign and palatable form of the Indian religious experience. Most students of religion know that Buddha tried to reform some of the ancient practices; they think of him as having brought order and sophistication to primitive chaos. When they prepare lists of the great world religions, they think of themselves as demonstrating respect for the religion of India by calling it Buddhism. Most of them are not even conscious of their mistake.
Buddha's position relative to Hinduism is similar, in a sense, to Martin Luther's relative to the Roman Catholic Church.* Both men were reformers, and the structure reformed by each was not supplanted by his teachings. The Catholic Church survives to this day, and has in many ways been strengthened by Luther's reforms. Hinduism, similarly, was purified and strengthened by the teachings of Buddha, and was in no way replaced by them. Most Hindus today look upon Buddha as one of their own avataras, or divine incarnations.
There are two aspects to Hinduism, as there are to every religion. One is outward and concerns ritual worship, traditions, and patterns of social behavior. The other is inward. This other is essential in both senses of the word: It contains the essence of that religion; it is, moreover, essential that this essence be understood for Hinduism really to be understood at all. This second, this essential aspect of the Hindu religion concerns the individual's relationship to God, and to higher truth.
In their inner aspect, the ancient teachings of India are so broad-based that it seems almost a contradiction of the vastness of their vision to identify it uniquely with any specific religion. Hinduism, in its plethora of symbols and images, is endlessly complex and therefore endlessly misunderstood, but its true mission is both simple and universal: soul-enlightenment. The way to understand this mission is to realize that it is goal-oriented, not way-oriented. In other words, its focus is the ultimate attainment, Self-realization in God. It is not focused on the outer rituals, which are intended merely to remind one of God. The outer teaching of Hinduism, which I call the Hindu Way of Belief, developed out of an inner vision of this universal goal of all life. To understand the outer way is not possible without first probing the inner.
The purpose of this book, then, is primarily to clarify certain deep teachings that lie, like the ocean, beneath the bewildering profusion of surface waves.
The secondary purpose of this book is to analyze a few of the symbols people commonly encounter from their very first exposure to Hinduism. I don't propose to explain those symbols in exhaustive detail, but rather to give an over-view of them in the hope that foreigners and "modernized" Indians alike may come to appreciate the Hindu Way of Belief, also, for the deep truths it contains.
For even today, thousands of years since they were first expounded by the ancient rishis (spiritual sages), the religious teachings of India nourish what continues to be the most spiritually grounded civilization in the world.
* A better comparison might be the example of Jesus Christ, who was a great master. Jesus, however, unlike the others, never founded anything, but remained throughout his life a loyal Jew. Many commentators have claimed that the first actual Christian was St. Paul of Tarsus.