A Quick Start on Hinduism: What is Sanatana Dharma?

Juraj Sipos

Rig Veda says: "Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahudha Vadanti", which means that there is only One God (Truth) and people see Him (It) differently.

A lot of Western books with information on Hinduism lack a quick start introduction, which appears very useful in situations like when you want to assemble a computer. If you start reading comprehensive information like what is DDR-RAM or AGP, you may keep “assembling” your PC even for months. But if you a have quick information guide with info like which slot/socket serves which component, you have good prospects to assemble your PC even within 10 minutes. The goal of this quick start intro is to use a similar approach for Hinduism. What is the spine of Sanatana Dharma – one of the oldest religions of the world?

A simple question, isn’t it? Let's answer it simply too. First of all, it is living with the principles of this beautiful Universe (and nature, of course); many outwardly complicated things are simple from within and are only made "complicated" by people who want to mask their purpose to manipulate others. Many "Coca Cola Gurus" appear around with this goal.

Hinduism is very old. It is a hybrid corpus within the body of which many different opinions, even the contradictory ones, can coexist peacefully with one another. If someone tries to define this nonmonolithic hybrid with "Western thinking", he or she will usually write a definite nonsense. Thus, it is not an easy thing to try to define Hinduism. But a good thing is to draw it near to the eyes of novices or those who prefer few minutes to several hundred hours of unorganized talks.

”Sanatana” means eternal, never ending and never starting... The word “Dharma” means a Way to Liberation; it is also the God of Justice. Sanatana Dharma is eternal community.

Sanatana Dharma or Dharma is a religion revealed by Gods in the ancient history of our earth, several thousand years before Christ. For followers of Dharma the Vedas and the epics like Ramayana or Mahabharata are the same what Holy Bible to Christians and Holy Qur'an to Muslims. Hinduism differs from Western (and European) style of thinking, which - on a philosophical premise - does not solve existential problems for most of the time (except for Christianity) but rather makes huge knots of interpretations even of the simplest things and nurtures various "conceptions", whose purpose is to put their coarse "interlocking approach" with its tangled definitions almost everywhere. Have you ever read a book about who is faster - a turtle or Achilles? Don't smile… Such books do really exist (not only with the verbatim title of the above example)!

Sanatana does not have one founder; it does not have one theological system; it consists of a variety of religious groups that had come into being many thousand years ago, and which gradually evolved and are evolving even today. Like every religion, it has false and enlightened teachers. As it is difficult to judge many aspects of ancient wisdoms, a "guru" is often chosen to help followers grasp the astuteness of Gods. Dharma is a theistic religion. Some teachers became generally accepted, for example, a famous Indian philosopher Adi Shankar, as well as many others.

The difference between Hinduism and other religions like Christianity and Islam.

Hinduism is a diverse, nonmonolithic theistic religion and a body of various views.

Christianity (only Christ is in the focus) and Islam are monolithic with exception of Buddhism, which is less monolithic and for which gods are not so important.

Moksha

The goal of Dharma is moksha - it is the final state of a soul that liberates itself from the circle of reincarnations and unites with the Devas - Higher Beings. A path to this liberation is contoured in Hindu scriptures and brought closer via instructions of gurus, who often do not share the same views among themselves. Moksha results in Absolute Peace (Shanti), Absolute Knowledge (Videh), Absolute Enlightenment (Kaivalya) and Absolute Bliss (Swarga).

Within the concept of Sanatana Dharma, there are Absolute Gods - Trimurti or the Holy Trinity in simple words: Brahma - Creator, Vishnu - Preserver, Shiva – Destroyer (though this label can be deceptive, as Shiva and Vishnu appear in many roles and any of them can be seen as the Supreme God). However, there are also groups that emphasize Parvati, Skanda, Ganesh, or even Surya as Absolute Gods. People may also choose their own gods, or their forms (like Kali, for example).

Four Yugas

Dharma’s view on the development of our macro age is based upon the conception of four ages; every age is called "Yuga".
These are (solar years):
1) Satya Yuga (1,728,000 years)
2) Treta Yuga (1,296,000 years)
3) Dwapar Yuga (864,000 years)
4) Kali Yuga (432,000 years)

What is Trimurti?

It is the Holy Trinity of Gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Followers of Vishnu are Vaishnavists and followers of Shiva are Shaivists. These Gods also have their sectarian followers (not mentioned here).

Other important Gods

Shiva has two sons, who are worshipped separately by some groups as Absolute Gods. One is Ganesh and another one is Murugan. There are also sectarian followers of Ganesh (Ganapatyas) and followers of Murugan (Kaumaram). But I should not forget to mention followers of Durga – Devi Mata (female principle). The concept of Durga comes from Shaivism and ancient tribal prehistoric forms of devotion that developed many thousands years before Christ, whose rationale was to worship female attributes of nature. People in India also worship several other gods like Hanuman, a monkey god (a representation of Lord Shiva), or Surya - the sun God, who had His worshippers in ancient Iran as well. Some gods disappeared from the mainstream denominations.

Brahma

The Hindu Trimurti starts with Brahma, who was (is) the Creator. Certain denominations have different opinions (Shaivists may understand Brahma to be the energy of Lord Shiva who created the universe). In order to produce a human race (legends say), Brahma created a goddess from Himself, who was a half-man and a half-woman - Gayatri, also known to many as Saraswati. Today, she is acknowledged as the goddess of wisdom, arts, knowledge, and music (she is often pictured with veena, a kind of Indian lyre). Saraswati is a Brahma's consort similarly like Lakshmi is a Vishnu's and Parvati a Shiva's consort.

In India, there are only few well-known temples dedicated to this God in contradiction to thousands of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva or Lord Ganesh.

Brahma was cursed, legends say. In one such a legend, the great priest Bhrigus cursed Brahma. Bhrigus prepared for a very big sacrifice and decided to invite the Highest Gods too. When he came to Brahma, He was so immersed to music He heard from Saraswati playing her veena that He did not hear him. Angry Bhrigus cursed Brahma - "no one shall ever worship You", he said. It appears that this really happened.

Vishnu

Vishnu is the Supreme God for the Vaishnava denomination.

1) The first incarnation of Vishnu was "Matsya" or Fish. There is also Matsya Purana.
2) The second was Kurma or Turtle.
3) The third is Varaha or a Boar; Vishnu killed a bad demon in this form, saved the Vedas from the bottom of the ocean, which He brought back here.
4) The fourth is Narasingha (often the word Narasimha is also used) - a half-man and half-lion (a parallel to Egyptian sphinx?).
5) The fifth is Vamana, or a "dwarf incarnation".
6) The sixth is Parasurama.
7) The seventh is Rama, who killed a bad demon Ravana, who kidnapped His consort Sita. The entire story is written in Ramayana.
8) The eighth is Krishna.
9) The ninth is Buddha, but some say that it could be Jesus as well.
10) And the last one is Kalki, the coming of whom is yet expected at the end of Kali Yuga; Kalki will destroy darkness on earth and will establish justice.

The most known Bhagavad-Gita is a book taken out of Mahabharata (there are also other Gitas), as it has an exceptional value, because Lord Krishna appears to Arjuna and reveals Himself to him. It is a book about struggles between two royal family clans - the Pandus and the Kurus. The Kurus used trickery to deprave the Pandus of any participation in the shared kingdom - they had always planned to reap the whole empire from the Pandus. They had lured them to play dice and depraved them of their possessions and status, and finally expelled them to the woods. Later, the Pandus came back, as their coming was legal – that is, the number of years determined for their exile expired. Krishna gets involved and patiently explains to the Kurus that the war should be avoided. He has no success. Finally, Krishna and Arjuna have a deep philosophical discussion in which Krishna reveals Himself to Arjuna; He even shows him His four hands. Arjuna, a member of the Pandu family clan, is doubtful of what the war might bring and Krishna explains to him that the soul is actually immortal. The war starts and ends with the Kurus being totally defeated.

Vishnu’s vehicle is Garuda (a large mythical bird).

Shiva

Shiva is the best yogi, tantric and meditator. For Shaivists, Shiva is the Supreme Deity.

The worship of Shiva in the pan-Hindu tradition is supposed to have been the oldest one. He has several attributes, of which few are here.

Attributes of Lord Shiva

1) Rudraksha beads: These beads, as legends say, have their origin in Shiva tears, from which rudraksha trees emerged. Rudraksha beads - natural products of these trees, are used to form a sacred Shaiva rosary with 108 beads.

2) Third eye: Shiva is often depicted with a third eye.

3) Serpents: Shiva is often shown garlanded with snakes.

5) Trident: Shiva's weapon is the trident.

6) Ashes: Shiva smears His body with ashes.

7) Nandi: the Bull (as Shiva’s vehicle).

8) Holy Mountain Kailash in Tibet: Shiva’s abode.

Shiva is the God of paradoxes.

The fundamentals of Hindu literature

Some Slavic and Sanskrit words are almost identical. In Slovak, "veda" is science (wisdom, knowledge), which is the same (in writing, meaning, and pronunciation) as the Sanskrit word "Veda". “Swarog”, a pan-Slavic Sun God, sounds similar to “Swarga” (Sanskrit word related to heaven, bliss, etc.). In Slavic languages, the word for God is “Boh” or “Bog” (Russian, Polish…) – similar to the Sanskrit word “Bhaga” (lord).

The spine of the Dharma scriptures consists of the following vertebras:

There is a lot of information in English Wikipedia, but its organization is not so tight. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_scriptures

The absolute scriptures

I. Shruti (Sruti), the God's word (a cosmic sound of Truth that was once heard). Here are the four Vedas:

1. Rig Veda; 2. Yajur Veda; 3. Sama Veda; 4. Atharva Veda.

The Vedas are poetical hymns about Gods; they have their subgroups: Aranyakas, Brahmanas, and Upanishads.

Aranyakas discuss philosophy and sacrifice.

Brahmanas are commentaries to the Vedas. Every Veda has its Brahmana.

Upanishads discuss philosophy and nature of God; they bring the secret meanings of the Vedas to light. The source from Wikipedia says that the following 11 belong to the class of the "key Upanishads":

1. Aitareya, 2. Brhadaranyaka, 3. Isa, 4. Taittiriya, 5. Katha, 6. Chandogya, 7. Kena, 8. Mundaka, 9. Mandukya, 10. Prashna, 11. Svetasvatara.

The following section differs from the above one in varied assortment approaches depending on religious groups that follow particular ideas or paths.

II. Smriti - the God's word that was remembered. Four Upavedas belong here:

A)

1) Ayurveda - about "science and health"; it belongs to Rig Veda; 2) Dhanurveda - about "military skills"; it belongs to Yajur Veda; 3) Gandharva Veda - about "art and science", it belongs to Sama Veda; 4) Arthashastra - "science about politics and economics" (Atharvaveda).

B)

Six Vedangas - organs of the Vedas:

1. Siksha - phonetics, 2. Vyakarana - grammar, 3. Chhandas - prosody (melodies of speech, etc.); 4. Nirukta - etymology; 5. Jyotisha - astronomy and astrology; 6. Kalpa - methods for various rituals.

III. Sacred epics (Itihasas)

Ramayana and Mahabharata.

IV. Puranas (sacred legends and history)

A) 18 main Puranas or Mahapuranas

1. Bhagavata Purana (written some 1300 years before Christ). It is about the life of Krishna (18,000 verses), 2. Vishnu Purana (23,000 verses), 3. Naradiya Purana (25,000 verses), 4. Garuda (Suparna) Purana (19,000 verses), 5. Padma Purana (55,000 verses), 6. Varaha Purana (10,000 verses), 7. Brahma Purana (24,000 verses), 8. Brahmanda Purana (12,000 verses), 9. Brahma Vaivarta Purana (18,000 verses), 10. Markandeya Purana (9,000 verses), 11. Bhavishya Purana (14,500 verses), 12. Vamana Purana (10,000 verses), 13. Matsya Purana (14,000 verses), 14. Kurma Purana (17,000 verses), 15. Linga Purana (11,000 verses), 16. Shiva Purana (24,000 verses), 17. Skanda Purana (81,100 verses), 18. Agni Purana (15,400 verses).

These are also divided into categories that fall under one of the Trimurti Gods: Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva. Shakta denomination has its own category. Some of the above Puranas may be classified differently, for example, Markandeya Purana as glorification of the Great Goddess.

B) 18 Upapuranas (standing near Mahapuranas, "upa" - near)

These are:

1. Sanat Kumara, 2. Narasimha, 3. Brihannaradiya, 4. Sivarahasya, 5. Durvasa, 6. Kapila, 7. Vamana, 8. Bhargava, 9. Varuna, 10. Kalika, 11. Samba, 12. Nandi, 13. Surya, 14. Parashara, 15. Vasishtha, 16. Devi-Bhagavata, 17. Ganesha, 18. Hamsa.

C) Specific Puranas, for example, Tamil Puranas like Shiva Purana or Periya Purana (this part may be extended to a much larger number).

V. Agamas (manuals for sacred worship)

VI. "Six philosophies” or "Upa Vedangas"

Yoga belongs here, for example.

VII. Other texts

In addition to the above texts, there are many other scriptures, for example, various Gitas like: Brahma Gita (from Skanda Purana), Shiva Gita (from Padma Purana), or even Surya Gita, etc.

VIII. Secular texts of spiritual touch

1) Stories of wise recommendations, or opinions written by various authors in various periods of the Indian history, or even recently; 2) Poetry; 3) Dramas; 4) Speeches, 5) Tales, 6) Philosophy, 7) Psychology.

Conclusion

Many Hindu websites write that Ganesh is the God of all people. If you ask: who may be a follower of Dharma? The answer is: just anybody who follows, with pure heart, the principles of the above bequests. Dharma is in harmony with nature. Nature’s rules are such that flowers do not run after bees, but bees come flying to flowers. If you see Coca Cola gurus running after you with thousands of billboards everywhere inviting you to “meditate”, be skeptical! It is enough for you to start reading some of the above holy books and pray a few moments every day. The point of Dharma is that you become a bee, not an insect. Only then can you take advantage of the scent and beauty of the flora.

Copyright (c) Juraj Sipos

My website: http://www.freebsd.nfo.sk/hinduism/