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Hinduism is one of the oldest surviving religions in the world. In fact, its origin is lost in the mist of time. According to some, Hinduism is a way of life rather than a religion. It is difficult to analyze and explain Hinduism in a few thousand words or even a few hundred thousand since it encompasses a whole gamut of life expressions. It has different connotations for different people and its taste or flavor differs. In short it means different things to different people. But the ultimate goal of Hinduism is the same and that is realizing god.

There are two broad divisions within the Hindu religion viz. Shaivism and Vaishnavism . Followers of  Shaivism pray to Shiva who is the creator  and  destroyer of the universe. The world vibrates in consonance to his cosmic dance, the Tandava Nritya . Shiva holds a drum in one hand and a Trishul or Trident in another. His wife or consort is Parvati , considered to be the mother goddess. There are many stories woven around the life and activities of Shiva and his devotees get quick release from this human bondage. But material benefits are what he is known to bestow and for which he is popular. Shaivites or the followers of Shiva, pray to the image of a Phallus or Lingam or Shivaling which represents Shiva. Many scholars have interpreted that this practice of praying to the Phallus indicates that it is one of the oldest religions because a Phallus is supposed to be the fountainhead of life and a sign of fertility in many societies.     Whatever be the reason, one can generally find women perambulate or go around the stone Phallus in the hope of begetting progeny. As mentioned earlier, Hinduism is much more complex that what meets the eye. The Tandava Nritya or the cosmic dance which Shiva performs can be viewed from several perspectives. From a cosmological point of view, it signifies the movement of the stars and planets, the birth and death of galaxies and in a way it is life itself. The growth and decay of the universe on a larger canvass, the orbits of   subatomic particles, electrons and protons around the nucleus, are all a vision of this very dance of nature. Indeed, the prescience and deep understanding of the physical nature of the world around us explained through the medium of the cosmic dance is astounding. This cosmic dance is performed by Shiva in the form of Nataraja.

Shiva’s consort or wife is Parvati is an important goddess in the pantheon of Hinduism. She is considered as mother earth. The cult of mother earth or Shakti is much more prevalent in the eastern parts of India. She is known by several names like Kali , Durga and Shakti . She is depicted in a fierce posture or in Rudra or angry mood. It is believed that Durga killed the Buffalo demon Mahishasura when he began oppressing the people. She as an incarnation of Parvati could not control her anger even after killing the demon and Shiva himself had to lie down across her path. When she saw her husband prostrate on the ground, Durga came back to her normal self. The killing of the demon ,Mahishasura is celebrated every year during the Dusherra festival ,falling in the month of October or November ,every year. The Hindu religion pays equal homage to gods and goddesses alike. If one is a destroyer the other protector, the yin and yang of Hinduism. The parallel of Shakti in Shaivism is Maha Laxmi who is the wife of Vishnu. She is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. She brings peace and harmony in one’s life. It is said that Lord Vishnu never refuses anything to her and therefore praying to Laxmi is a sure way to attain god Vishnu himself. The cult of Mahalaxmi is an irony of sorts. Hindu religion by itself shuns wealth and considers it as Maya or delusion which takes a person away from truth or god. To attain moksha or salvation, which is a release from the cycle of birth and death, one has to give up worldly posessions and comfort. It is therefore a paradox that Mahalaxmi who is an antithesis, is still venerated. But, Hinduism is such a complex religion that it is not easy to rationalize the opposites

The progeny of Shiva and Parvati is the elephant god Ganesha. According to mythology, Shiva cut the head of his son in anger. When Parvati saw her dead son she was inconsolable. Taking pity on her condition, Shiva cut the head of an elephant and attached it to his son’s body. Thus, Ganesha was resurrected. Ganesha forms an important part of life among the Hindus. He is known to forestall accidents and prevent evil from entering the house. Ganesha can usually be found at the entrance to most of the Hindu homes. With his rotund belly and elephant face, he is a lovable and cuddly god.

Vaishnavism is the other division of Hinduism. Considered to be a more modern philosophy (in comparison to Shaivism) it revolves around the god, Vishnu and his many incarnations or avatars. The image of Vishnu floating on the ocean of life while lying down on the serpent Adisesha is a universal one. Vishnu according to popular lore, has come to earth in the form of a human being to annihilate evil. In the famous battle of Mahabharata , Krishna ,an avatar of Vishnu tells Arjuna ,” Whenever there will be evil on earth which tries  to destroy Dharma or righteousness , I will come down to earth and restore the balance of nature”. Philosophers and pundits have interpreted this famous quotation in different ways, but most agree that it is an analogy for the universe and whenever the forces of nature go beyond a threshold, the cascading effect ensures that the balance is restored. In astronomy, we can call it the expansion, contraction, collapse and explosion of the universe, the creation of black holes and white dwarfs. Again, the complexity of Hindu philosophy which encompasses the faith of belief and the precision of science, all at one time, is indeed mindboggling. It would be appropriate to mention here that many thousands of interpretations are possible and indeed put forward and we are but a small speck in the cosmic ocean of intellect to comment conclusively on any of them.

On a more physical level, Vishnu has come to earth in nine different avatars. The tenth one called Kalki , will bring an annihilation of the universe . Again and again we are struck by the enormous intelligence and knowledge of men who perceived of the avatars. A little thought , leads us to the obvious conclusion that , it is a progression of life from a water being to a human  form . Charles Darwin could well have been the author of this mystic work. ‘Origin of the species’ seems suspiciously close to the interpretation of life enumerated by the progression of Avatars . The first avatar was the fish (Matsya) followed by tortoise (Kurma) , Boar( Varaha), Man-Lion(Nrsimha) , Dwarf( Vamana) and then the human forms Parasurama , Rama, Krishna and Balarama. 

Among the different avatars those of Rama and Krishna are the most popular. Here again one can see the reflection of society as it existed during the times of Rama and Krishna as distinct. The life of Rama is that of sacrifice and rigid hierarchy. Its tragic storyline speaks of the difficult and hard life of that period. ‘One wife and one word’ is the essence of Rama’s life. In comparison, life is a dance, literally for Krishna. He makes merry among the many thousands of Gopika or girlfriends. This is called ‘Ras Lila’.Here the message is to enjoy and make merry for life is gift from god. At the same time there is a constant refrain to ensure that the dharma or principles of life are adhered to. Again, the story , myth and folklore come together beautifully to give expression to life and give new meaning to it. The Krishna cult has been very popular in the West, probably because it is more accommodating and nearer to the vision of western philosophers. Be it as it may, the power and beauty of Hinduism can never be surpassed by any other religion ,   in its vastness of vision and  in its depth of reason and scientific underpinning.

At the root of Hindu philosophy is the ‘Soul’. The ‘Soul’ is imperishable. There are two important schools of thought or doctrines.  The ‘Dvaita’ philosophy states that the supreme soul or the godhead is different from the individual soul and though one can attain god by escaping from the cycle of birth and death, the individual and the godly soul remain distinctly separate. The Jiva or the   soul and Ishvara ,  the creator are distinct. This philosophy was expounded by Madhvacharya . This is dualism. The other school of thought is the Advaita or the oneness of god and individual soul. After attaining Moksha or salvation, the individual soul merges with that of the godhead. In effect there is no individuality after salvation.This was propouned by Sankara.  Another school of thought became popular in South India called Vishtadvaita or qualified duelism. This philosophy was propounded by Ramanujacharya. According to this thought, the individual soul merges with the super soul or the super sentient while at the same time it retains its individuality. This triggered a new wave of philosophical thought and a revival of Hinduism in Southern India.

One might wonder how all these contrary schools of thought coexist. In fact, Hinduism is not a dogmatic religion like many other modern ones. Hinduism is a progressive religion which changes its shape and structure with the times. No wonder that even today it is practiced by people all over   and has become popular in the Western world.

‘Krishna consciousness’ movement has been popularized by   A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. This is popularly known as ISKON or the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. The basic tenet of this philosophy is the ecstasy and extreme bliss derived from devotion to Krishna, one of the avatars of Vishnu. The essence of Vaishnavism is complete surrender to god or ‘Saranagati’ where there are no more questions or doubts in the mind of the devotee. The path of surrender or saranagati is the easiest way to godhead or to attain Moksha. Love and complete devotion to god is advocated. Compared to this, realization of god through the intellect is torturous and difficult. The story of Mira and Aandal represents the triumph of love and devotion to Krishna, the ultimate truth.

From the gamut of mundane prayers offered to gods of stone   in this physical world to the awe inspiring heights of logic and philosophy, the Hindu religion encompasses all. The ways to god are many and each man to his own. There is no one path, there is no one dogma. Salvation, Nirvana or Moksha is attainable and gates to heaven are open to all. If at all there is burning in hell, it is on this earth in the form of human misery. At the same time, there is no promise of angels and beautiful women do not entice you to the blessed paradise. At the end of it all, Hinduism promises a release from the cycle of birth and death. That is all.


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