It has been said that Hinduism seems to be a federation of faiths rather than a single religion, and in many ways this is true. Even within a single school, the Vedanta, there are widely different views on such central issues as the nature of Brahman, the status of the individual self, and the reality of the empirical world. Yet there is also much which binds Hinduism together, giving to it an unmistakeable character: belief in rebirth and Karma, the cyclical nature of time, the immanence as well as the transcendence of the Supreme Reality, the less than fully real and ultimately unsatisfactory nature of empirical existence, and the supreme value of moksha or release, are among the most widely held ideas.
Moreover, underlying the flexibility and the variety of forms which characterize Hinduism, we can detect a persistent pattern. It is that of a single unchanging Reality - which may be conceived either theistically, or as the unqualified Absolute lying beyond all description - and alongside it, a principle of change and limitation which makes possible all of manifestation. This pattern appears in different guises: as Purusha and Prakriti in the Sankhya and Yoga schools; as Brahman and Avidya (with its outcome, Maya) in Advaita Vedanta; as Vishnu and his 'sport' or lila in the greater part of the Bhakti movement; and as Shiva and Shakti in the Tantric tradition and in the Shiv Puran and Vishnu Puran. This pair - ultimate reality and principle of manifestation - is the bedrock upon which Hinduism rests; the unchanging metaphysical foundation beneath its varied forms.
While the status of the first of these two principles is quite clear - it is Reality itself - the status of the second (and therefore of the phenomenal world which is its expression) is deeply mysterious. Indeed, it is the ultimate mystery. The second principle cannot be an independent reality, for Reality can only be one. Some consider it an expression or 'power' of that Reality which is Brahman, a real effect of a real cause- yet how can an unchanging Absolute give rise to an effect? Others see it as having a provisional reality for us, but nevertheless unreal in absolute terms. What is clear is that, whatever degree of reality the second principle possesses, that reality is drawn entirely from its relationship with Brahman. It is not a case of a distinct power of change and manifestation set over and against a transcendent First Principle; to regard it as such would be to misunderstand the whole direction of Hinduism, and is first specified in the Garuda Purana.
Informing the whole of Hinduism is the idea of release or moksha. It is essentially a change of identity, a disengagement from the second of the two principles we have discussed and a conscious identification with the first. This is the great goal, the reality and the possibility of which is vouched for by the Upanishadic rishis, and by the saints of every generation. It is spoken of in the Mahabharat story and in the Ramayana story, as the final goal of the great rishis. Moksha is not something which is gained or obtained; it is the discovery of something present in us all the time - a different kind of consciousness which is our ultimate destination simply because it is our innermost nature. For most schools of Hinduism (though not for the major Bhakti schools), moksha is release from the individual condition itself: the release of consciousness from the limiting forms in which it is enclosed, as the relative nature of these is experienced. Thus moksha is not a deprivation but an expansion of consciousness beyond the bounds of individuality. It is essentially positive- not, as the Buddhist nirvana is often and perhaps incorrectly represented as being, simply the ending of sorrow.
However great the value placed upon moksha, the claims of ordinary life are not denied. Hinduism is a religion which is catholic in the full sense of the word, and within it there is room for men and women at every level of development. Just as there are four classes in Hindu society, so too four corresponding objectives in life are recognized. The highest objective is, of course, moksha. The other three are: dharma, carrying out the obligations and duties stemming from one's social station, as Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita advises Arjuna to do; artha, the pursuit by just and fair means of material well-being; and kama, the pursuit of love and the pleasures of the flesh in their natural and normal forms. Thus it is not surprising to find in the third century BC treatise, the Chanakya Niti by Kautilya, a Brahmin and Chief Minister in the Mauryan Empire, he specifies the toll fees to charge for prostitutes and priests in the same sentence.
This breadth and acceptance of life is reinforced by the fact that the Supreme Reality is thought of as immanent in the world, in addition to being transcendent to it. From this comes the great respect which Hindus have for the earth and its gifts - seen, for example, in the love and gratitude felt towards the domestic cow, which is thought of as a living symbol of the bounty of nature. Hinduism is in many respects a joyous religion, as those who have witnessed its festivals will know. While for some who are striving for moksha asceticism certainly has its importance, the natural world is not in general seen as opposed to the spiritual life. On the contrary, it is seen as an expression of divinity, and in consequence of this Hinduism recognizes no principle of evil as such. The many demons which inhabit the world of Hindu myth all have their place in the scheme of things, and in the stories they always turn out to be of a spiritual nature and capable of liberation. The life-affirming principle, the power or shakti which brings the world into being, is not understood as opposed to the transcendent principle, but is an aspect of it. Shakti is the partner of Shiva, his other face. The serpent which, in Christianity, brought about the Fall of Man and became his lasting enemy, is in Hinduism found entwined around the neck of Shiva, or acting as the couch upon which Vishnu reclines.
But if Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma does not deny the world and so slip into dualism, neither does it make the opposite mistake of becoming a mere earth-religion - a faith in which life and nature are celebrated and their benefits sought, while the transcendent dimension is virtually ignored. The natural world is not opposed to the Supreme Reality, but neither is it its entirety, and moksha exists on an altogether different plane of being to that of the three other life objectives. It consists, as we have seen, in an entirely different order of consciousness; and in order to discover this, to become what we really are in our deepest being, Hinduism holds that we must free ourselves from all emotional engagement with the world and its forms. That involves, not a denial of the world or the body, not turning against it and seeing it as an enemy, but seeing it in the context of a greater reality, and thus as the relative and temporary thing that it is.
But not everyone will attain to the Self-discovery which is moksha in this lifetime. The goal is a possible one, but the hold which life in the world has upon us is powerful and the habit of identity with the individual self deeply engrained; few will attain release, because in reality few of us want it deeply and persistently enough. What, then, will happen to those men and women who, having travelled some part of the way, do not complete the whole journey before death? What has Hinduism to offer these? Are their efforts lost and wasted?
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