Book: Hindu Dharma, Written by Swami Chandrashekarendra
Our religion has a number of unique or distinctive features. One of them
is what is called the theory of karma, though this theory is common to
religions like Buddhism which are offshoots of Hinduism.
What is the karma doctrine? For every action there is an equal and
opposite reaction. There is an ineluctable law of physics governing
and effect, action and reaction. This law pertaining to physical
phenomena our forefathers applied to human life. The cosmos includes
not only sentient beings endowed with consciousness but also countless
insentient objects. Together they constitute worldly life. The laws, the
dharma, proper to the first order must apply to the second also.
According to the karma theory, every action of a man has an effect
corresponding to it. Based on this belief our religion declares that, if
man commits a sin, he shall pay the penalty for it. Also if his act is a
virtuous one, he shall reap the benefits thereof.
Our religion further asserts that one is born again and again so as to
experience the consequences of one's good and bad action. "Do good.”
"Do not do evil,” such are the exhortations of all religions. But
(and its offshoots) alone lay stress on the cause-and -effect
No religion originating in countries outside India subscribes to the
effect connection, nor to the reincarnation theory as one of its
articles of faith. Indeed religions originating abroad hold beliefs
to this theory and strongly oppose the view that man is born again and
again in order to exhaust his karma. They believe that a man has only
birth, that when his soul departs on his death it dwells somewhere
awaiting the Day of Judgment. On this day God makes an assessment of
his good and bad actions and, on the basis of it, rewards him with
paradise or sentences him to eternal damnation.
Some years ago, a well-known writer from Europe came to see me
nowadays you see many white men coming to the Matha. This gentleman
told me that the Bible stated more than once that God is love. He could
not reconcile this with the belief that God condemns a sinner to eternal
damnation without affording him an opportunity for redemption. On this
point a parade had told him: "It is true that there is an eternal hell.
is eternally vacant. "
The padre's statement is difficult to accept. Let us suppose that the
in his compassion does not condemn a sinner to hell. Where then does he
send his soul? Since, according to Christianity, there is no rebirth the
sinner is not made to be born again. So he too must be rewarded with
heaven (as much as the virtuous man). This means that we may merrily
keep sinning without any fear of punishment. After all, God will reward
of us with heaven. This belief implies that there is no need for
According to our religion too, Isvara who decides our fate after death
the basis of our karma is infinitely merciful. But, at the same time, he
does not plunge the world in adharma, in unrighteousness- that is not
how his compassion manifests itself. What does he do then? He gives us
another birth, another opportunity to reap the fruits of our good and
action. The joys of heaven and the torments of hell truly belong to this
world itself. The sorrow and happiness that are our lot in our present
birth are in proportion to the virtuous and evil deeds of our past
Those who sinned much suffer much now and, similarly, those who did
much good enjoy much happiness now. The majority is made up of
people who know more sorrow than happiness and people who
experience sorrow and happiness almost in equal measure. There are
indeed very few blessed with utter happiness. It is evident from this
most of us must have done more evil than good in our past birth.
In His mercy the Lord gives us every time a fresh opportunity to wash
away our sins. The guru, the sastras, and the temples are all his gifts
wipe away our inner impurities. That Isvara, in his compassion, places
trust even in a sinner confident that he will raise himself through his
efforts and gives him a fresh opportunity in the form of another birth
advance himself inwardly- is not such a belief better than that he
dismiss a sinner as good for nothing and yet reward him with heaven? If
man sincerely believes, in a spirit of surrender, there is nothing that
can do on his own and that everything is the Lord's doing, he will be
redeemed and elevated. But it is one thing for God to bless a man who
goes to him for refuge forsaking his own efforts to raise himself and
another to bless him thinking him to be not fit to make any exertions on
his own to advance inwardly. So long as we believe in such a thing as
human endeavour we should think that Isvara's supreme compassion lies
in trusting a man to go forward spiritually through his own efforts. It
this way that the Lord's true grace is manifested.
That God does not condemn anyone to eternal punishment in hell is the
personal opinion of a particular padre. It cannot be said that all
like Christianity which believe that a man has only one birth agree with
this view. They believe that God awards a man hell or paradise according
to the good or evil he has done in one single birth. Since sinners who
deserve to be condemned to hell predominate, the Day of Judgment has
come to be known by the terrible name of doomsday. Here we have a
concept according to which the Lord's compassion seems to be
There is strong evidence to support the reincarnation theory. A lady
the West came to see me one day and asked me if there was any proof of
reincarnation. I did not have any discussion with her on the subject.
Instead, I asked her to visit the local obstetric hospital and find out
about the children born there. There was a learned man who knew
English where we were camping then. I asked him to accompany the lady.
Later, on their return from the hospital, I asked the woman about her
impressions of the new- born children. She said that she had found one
child plump and lusty, another skinny; one beautiful and another
ungainly. One child was born in a comfortable ward [that is to a well-todo
mother] and another to a poor mother.
"Leave aside the question of God consigning a man to eternal hell after
his death,” I said to the foreign lady. "We are not witness to such a
phenomenon. But now you have seen with your own eyes how differently
the children are born in the hospital that you visited. How would you
account for the differences? Why should one child be born rich and
another poor? Why should one be healthy and another sickly? And why
should one be good-looking and another not so good looking?
"If you accept the doctrine that men are born only once, you cannot but
from the impression that God is neither compassionate nor impartialthink
of all the differences at birth- and that he functions erratically and
unwisely. How are we to be devoted to such a God and have the faith
that he will look on us with mercy? How are we to account for the
differences between one being and another if we do not accept the
doctrine that our life now is determined by the good and the bad we did
in our past births. “The lady from the West accepted my explanation.
Such an explanation is not, however, good enough for people in modern
times. They demand scientific proof of reincarnation. Parapsychologists
have done considerable research in the subject and their findings are in
favour of the theory of rebirth. During the studies conducted in various
parts of the world they encountered people who remembered their past
lives. The latter recalled places and people they had seen in their
birth-places and people that have nothing to do with them now. The
parapsychologists verified these facts and to their amazement found
them to be true. The cases investigated by them were numerous. Most of
us are wholly unaware of our past lives, but some do remember them.
According to the researchers the majority of such people had been
victims of accidents or murder in their previous lives.
The doctrine of the incarnations of the Lord- avataras- is another
feature of our religion. The Reality (Sadvastu) is one. That It
itself as countless beings is one of our cardinal tenets. It follows
that it is
this one and only Reality that transforms itself again and again into
those beings that are subject to birth and death. Also it is the same
Reality that is manifested as Isvara to protect this world of sentient
beings and insentient objects. Unlike humans he is not subject to the
of karma. It is to live out his karma- to experience the fruits of his
man is born again and again. But in birth after birth, instead of
washing away his old karma, he adds more and more to the mud sticking
If the Lord descends to earth again and again it is to lift up man and
him the righteous path. When unrighteousness gains the upper hand and
righteousness declines, he descends to earth to destroy unrighteousness
and to establish righteousness again- and to protect the virtuous and
destroy the wicked. Sri Krsna Paramatman declares so in the Gita.
Isvara is to be known in different states. That the Lord is all- that
all is the
Lord- is a state that we cannot easily comprehend. Then there is a state
mentioned in the "vibhuti yoga"of Gita according to which the Lord
dwells in the highest of each category, in the "most excellent" of
To create the highest of excellence in human life he sends messengers to
earth in the guise of preceptors (acaryas), men of wisdom and
enlightenment (jnanins), yogins and devotees. This is another state in
which God is to be known. Not satisfied with the previous states, he
assumes yet another state: he descends to earth as an avatara. The word
"avatarana" itself means "descent". Isvara is "paratpara", that is
than the highest", "beyond what is beyond everything". Yet he descends
to earth by being born in our midst to re-establish dharma.
Sindhanta Saivas do not subscribe to the view of Siva having avataras.
they agree with the belief that Adi Sankara and Jnanasambandhar were
incarnations of Siva and Muruga (Subrahmanya) respectively. Their view
is that if Isvara dwells in a human womb, in a body of flesh, he makes
himself impure. According to Advaitins even all those who inhabit the
human womb made up of flesh are in substance nothing but the
Brahman. They see nothing improper in the Lord coming down to earth.
All Vaisnavas, without exception, accept the doctrine of divine avataras.
Philosophically speaking, there are many points of agreement between
Vaisnavas and Saivas though the former are not altogether in agreement
with the view that it is the Brahman itself that is expressed as the
individual self. When we speak of the avataras, we generally mean the
ten incarnations of Visnu. Vaisnavas adhere to the doctrine of avataras
because they believe that Visnu descends to earth to uplift humanity.
Indeed it is because of his boundless compassion that he makes himself
small [or reduces himself] to any degree. In truth, however, the Lord is
neither reduces nor tainted a bit in any of his incarnations because,
though in outward guise he looks a mortal, he knows himself to be what
in reality he is.
Altogether the Vedic dharma that is Hinduism accepts the concepts the
concept of incarnations of the Lord. Saivas too are one with Vaisnavas
believing in the ten incarnations of Visnu.
That the one and only Paramatman who has neither a form nor attributes
is manifested as different forms with attributes is another special
of our religion. We worship idols representing these forms of deities.
this reason others label us polytheists. There view is utterly wrong.
Because we worship the one God, the one reality, in many different forms
it does not mean that we believe in many gods. It is equally absurd to
us idolaters who hold that the idol we worship is God. Hindus with a
proper understanding of their religion do not think that the idol alone
God. The idol is meant for the worshipper to offer one-pointed devotion
and he adores it with the conviction that the Lord who is present
everywhere is present in it also. We see that practitioners of other
religions also have symbols for worship and meditation. So it is wholly
unjust to believe that Hindus alone worship idols - to regard them with
scorn as idolaters is not right.
That ours is the only religion that does not proclaim that its followers
have an exclusive right to salvation is a matter of pride for us Hindus.
catholic outlook is revealed in our scriptures which declare that
the religious path followed by people they will finally attain the same
Paramatman. That is why there is no place for conversion in Hinduism.
Christianity has it that, if a man does not follow the teachings of
Christ, he shall be condemned to hell. Islam says the same about those
who do not follow the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. We must
not be angry with the adherents of either religion on that score. Let us
take it that Christians and Muslims alike believe that followers of
religions do not have the same sense of fulfillment as they have. So let
presume that it is with good intentions that they want to bring others
into their fold (Christianity or Islam as the case may be) out of a
Let us also assume that if they resort to means that seem undesirable,
is to achieve what they think to be a good objective, luring others into
their faith. It was thus that they carried out conversions in the past,
force of arms. Islam, particularly, expanded its sway in this way. It is
said that Christianity spread with the help of money power. But
also used their army to gain adherent, though with the force of arms was
associated the philanthropic work of the missionaries. White men had the
advantage of money that the Muslims of the Arabian Desert did not
possess. Christian missionaries built schools, hospitals and so on to
induce the poor to embrace their faith.
We may not approve of people being forced into a religion or of
conversions carried out by temptations placed before them. But we need
not for that reason doubt that those who spread their religion in this
fashion really believe that their work will bring general well-being.
We cannot, however, help asking whether their belief is right. People
who do not follow either Christ or the Prophet, are they really
condemned to hell? A little thinking should show that the belief that
followers of Christianity or Islam have an exclusive right to salvation
cannot be sustained. It is only some 2, 000 years since Jesus was born
only about 1, 400 years or so since the birth of the Prophet. What
happened to all the people born before them since creation? Are we to
believe that they must have passed into hell? We are also compelled to
infer that even the forefathers of the founders of Christianity and
would not have earned paradise. If, like Hindus, all those who lived
before Christ or the Prophet had believed in rebirth, we could concede
that they would have been saved: they would have been again and again
until the arrival of Christ or the Prophet and then afforded the
opportunity of following their teachings. But if we accept the logic of
Christianity and Islam, according to which religions there is no
shall have to conclude that hundreds of millions of people for countless
generations must have been consigned to eternal hell.
The question arises as to whether God is so merciless as to keep
dispatching people for ages together to the hell from which there is no
escape. Were he compassionate would he not have sent, during all this
time, a messenger of his or a teacher to show humanity the way to
liberation? Why should we worship a God who has no mercy? Or for that
matter, why should there be any religion at all?
The countries are many and they have different climates and grow
different crops. Also each part of the world has evolved a different
culture. But the Vedas encompassed lands all over this planet from the
very beginning. Latter other religions emerged in keeping with the
changing attitudes of the nations concerned. That is why aspects of the
Vedic tradition are in evidence not only in the religions now in force
in what we know of those preceding them. But in India alone has
Hinduism survived as a full-fledged living faith.
It must also be added that this primeval religion has regarded - and
regards - with respect the religions that arose subsequent to it. The
view is this: "Other religions must have evolved according to the degree
of maturity of the people among whom they originated. They will bring
well being to their adherents. " "Live and let live" has been and
to be the ideal of our religion. It has given birth to religions like
and Jainism and they [particularly Buddhism] have been propagated
abroad for the Atmic advancement of the people there.
I have spoken about the special characteristics of Hinduism from the
philosophical and theological points of view. But it has also another
important feature which is also distinctive- the sociological.
All religions have their own philosophical and theological systems. Also
of them deal with individual life and conduct and, to a limited extent,
with social life. "Look upon your neighbour as your brother.” "Regard
your adversary as your friend.” Treat others in the same way as you
would like to be treated yourself. " "Be kind to all creatures. " "Speak
truth.” "Practice non-violence.” These injunctions and rules of conduct
relate to social life up to a point- and only up to a point. To
than Hinduism social life or the structure of society is not a major
concern. Hinduism alone has a sturdy sociological foundation, and its
special feature, "varnasrama dharma", is an expression of it.
Varna dharma is one and asrama dharma is another (together they make
up varnsrama dharma). Asrama dharma deals with the conduct of an
individual during different stages of his life. In the first stage, as a
brahmacarins, he devotes himself to studies in a gurukulas. In the
stage, as a youth, he takes a wife, settles down in life and begets
In the third, as he ages further, he becomes a forest recluse and,
much attachment to worldly life, engages himself in Vedic karma. In the
forth stage, he forsakes even Vedic works, renounces the word utterly to
become a sannyasin and turns his mind towards the Paramatman. These
four stages of life or asramas are called brahmacarya, garhasthya,
vanaprastha and sannyasa.
Varna dharma is an "arrangement" governing all society. It is very much
target of attack today and is usually spoken of as the division of
into "jatis". But "varna" and "jati" are in fact different. There are
varnas but the jatis are numerous. For instance, in the same varna there
are Ayyars, Ayyangars, Roas, etc - these are jatis. Mudaliars, Pillais,
Reddiars and Naikkars are jatis belonging to another varna. In the
Yajurveda (third astaka, fourth prasna) and in the Dhamasastra a number
of jatis are mentioned- but you do not meet with them today.
Critics of Varna dharma brand it as "a blot on our religion" as "a
system which divides people into high and low". But, if you look at it
impartially, you will realize that it is a unique instrument to bring
orderly and harmonious social life.