hinduism

Biggest Hindu Temple: Akshardham (the Hindusim & the Caste system)

The 5 Major Problems with Hinduism (esp. the Caste System)

Modern Hinduism

As humans, we like to idealize about things that we don’t necessarily experience. The grass is always greener where you aren’t.

Recently, this has occurred quite often in the way that Westerners view eastern religions in the yoga community. I definitely experienced this before I saw the religions in action when I visited southeast Asia.

Hinduism is one of the oldest religions on the planet and is the primary religion in Southeast Asia and India. It is the world’s third largest religion, after Islam and Christianity with one billion followers.

Hinduism is far more of an aggregation of diverse traditions, rituals, and philosophies rather than an organized religion. Despite this traditional disparity, which has unified since ancient times, modern Hindu philosophers have helped to universalize the religion into several core concepts:

  • There is a divine nature in all beings
  • Dharma and right living
  • Social Justice
  • Peace
  • Shared sacred literature

Together, these concepts combine to make up the modern philosophical view of the Hindu religion, which is really more of a category of rituals and traditions than an organized religion. The diversity of the religion is astounding.

Hinduism has had a profound effect upon India and has helped to form the social and cultural norms that have spread throughout southeast Asia. In reconciling the religion’s philosophical ideals with the modern culture of India and other Asian countries we can start to see some major problems with the religion’s traditions in regards to the functioning of humanity within their society.

These problems begin to show up in the structure of a society, as well as cultural tendencies, individual habits, and norms that are commonly accepted by the population. The following are the six major problems with the philosophical tradition:

  1. The Caste System
  2. Ahimsa
  3. Samsara
  4. Moksha
  5. Marriage
  6. Responsibility

The Caste System

The caste system, or separation of classes is probably the largest problem within the Hindu philosophies. People are born into their caste and cannot change it. There are five social classes defined by the Vedic philosophies: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, and Dalits. Varna, meaning class, and Jati, meaning caste, will help us to understand how the caste system is structured and implemented.

Brahmins are priests and teachers and are engaged in obtaining the “highest” spiritual knowledge. They are traditionally holy men with training from the age of 5, but can also be warriors, fishers, or other such professions. One usually continues the profession of their father and ancestors.

Kshatriyas are military elite and rulers. During wartime they protect and during peaceful times they rule. These were typically not chiefs, but the ruling elite.

Vaishyas were the class of farmers and cattle rearers until the more modern period where they transitioned to become money lenders, traders, and land-owners. There are lots of sub-castes in Vaishyas and there have been revolts by the class throughout history.

Shudras are the final caste in the system besides untouchables, or Dalits. Their duty and function is to serve the other castes, which has many potential problems for the members of the class. Some scholars believe that members of the caste were rejected by the other classes and therefore became the lowest class on the metaphorical totem pole.

Dalits are arguably not a caste, but rather untouchables and those rejected by society at large and make up about 20% of the population. India has passed several laws to protect this group of people because they are historically very discriminated against. They are also known as the casteless people.

One is born into a caste based on their family and are derived based on their occupation, though it wasn’t always the caste (get it?). The modern version of the caste system is a result of the colonial British Empire and served to provide administrative structure for the regime. It is essentially similar to slavery and modern India’s government has fought this discrimination with affirmative action, job reservations, and government jobs for the lower castes.

It’s pretty easy to see how the caste system promotes slavish living conditions and discrimination. It has influenced other religions and other countries, especially in the Indian subcontinent and is very visible in the social structures of most of the southeast asian countries. The promotion of the caste system is the biggest problem in Hinduism.

Ahimsa

Ahimsa is the concept of non-harm and means not to injure and applies to all living beings. Although the concept has many positive functions in human society, it promotes passivity for injustice and is probably one of the largest contributors to the reason that the caste system exists at all. Non-harm in nature is not possible, as the consumption of living matter is completely necessary for the sustenance of life. I am not saying that peacefulness isn’t possible, but life itself is somewhat of a violent process.

Certain individuals require meat for optimal nutrition. Animals shouldn’t feel guilty about living according to their nature, which humans have defined as immoral. So Ahimsa is a great ideal and peace is something we all should strive for, but it’s not necessarily possible in the reality we live in. Even your body is a battlefield for bacteria and micro-organisms. It is simply the way of things in the world.

The concept itself beckons respect for all of life. This is something that is very positive, as it denotes appreciation and promotes consideration of the divinity of all beings. Therefore, if you hurt a living being, you hurt yourself, according to the concept. However, in practice, you must injure other beings to feed yourself. Plants, trees, fish, and all of life is used for humanity to prosper so why are animals different?

Essentially, Ahimsa renders people very peaceful, which is positive, but it can also lead to passivity and acceptance of things that probably should not be acceptable. An example of this is the caste system. As we go down this list, you will start to see some patterns arising that play off of each other and contribute to a climate that is the Hindu religion in modern India. Gandhi was one of the primary promoters of Ahimsa.

Samsara

Samsara is the repeating cycle of birth, death, and rebirth believed by most eastern religions. The idea is that your current life is one of many past and future lives that all affect what you are experiencing now. Karma is what affects your destiny, but the Buddha taught that there was no beginning to the cycle, just an end that comes with Moksha, or liberation from the cycles of deaths and rebirths.

Obviously, this can breed complacency in life as well. There is no evidence to suggest that any of this is real (subjective data is not evidence) and it can lead, again, to acceptance of behaviors and circumstances that might otherwise be fought against. It also takes away from the present moment and can allow an individual to blame circumstances outside of reality for their current predicaments.

Moksha

Moksha is the concept of liberation from Samsara. This is the end goal of the Hindu ascetic’s karma and life. This is essentially an equivalent to heaven for the Hindu and denotes enlightenment, though it differs from the Buddhist ideals of enlightenment because in the Hindu religion, Moksha requires death. It represents self-knowledge, self-realization, and freedom, but also the completion of a fulfilled life of Dharma.

Again, this can create complacency, but on the flip side it can create acceptance for difficult circumstances and hope for the future. It also lends itself to an idealization of the end of life, rather than the present which can be negative. Moksha is a powerful idea, but again there is no evidence to suggest that reality does in fact work this way, so it can lead to delusional behavior.

Marriage

Hindu marriage is a traditional union where two individuals join together to pursue Dharma and Moksha and is recognized by law. Consummation is normally required for the marriage to be validated and most rituals lead to the consummation of the marriage. Marriage is normally arranged by the family, but is not necessarily an indicator of higher divorce rates, or unhappiness in the relationship. Modern India is changing this, as individuals are starting to appreciate choosing their spouse, rather than having their marriage arranged.

Marriages are arranged according to a variety of factors including: astrology, genealogical records, parental relationships, and wealth. Normally, parents arrange the marriage, but in modern urban India, this is changing rapidly.

There are eight types of Hindu marriage, but their differences are mostly ritualistic in nature. Divorce is supposedly extremely rare in Indian marriages.

The biggest problem with Hindu marriage is that there is almost no choice in the relationship. Though many individuals are happy, there are certainly those that aren’t and that are required by their culture and religion to maintain the relationship. If you take the view that marriage should always be eternal this might be a positive thing, but if you believe in free-will and individual happiness you might think this is negative. Hindus tend to be very accepting of their marital circumstances so normally they don’t disclose the circumstances of their relationship freely and tend to be oppressed because of gender roles in India.

Conclusion

There are always positive and negative aspects of philosophical concepts, depending upon how they are implemented. Many of these problems can also be very positive, such as increasing acceptance of circumstances and ability to cope with harsh realities. However, some also lead to very negative things, such as not caring about the environment, massive pollution, separation of people by genealogy, and extreme poverty for those who are not accepted by the culture’s standards. Discrimination is relatively normal in the Hindu religion and especially in southeast Asia and the Hindu religion definitely contributes to this.

Many aspects of Hinduism are positive, but these are the major negative issues with the religion. Philosophy is often paradoxical, so if anything is unclear please comment below. Additions are also always welcome!

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saraswathi

Saraswati | Sarasvatī | सरस्वती

Saraswathi is a Hindu goddess, part of the trinity with Lakshmi and Parvati; she is a representation of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom, and learning. The three forms of the female goddess assist Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahman their partners while they sustain the universe . The goddess is revered by Jains and Buddhists as well as Hindus.

Saraswathi’s name is meaningful; Sara means essence, Sva means oneself so together they mean essence of oneself. It means to fill oneself with knowledge like with water and this goes further into her ancient mythological status as a divine river goddess, the best of river mother goddesses from the Rigveda.

Saraswathi is also meant to refer to a cleansing knowledge or knowledge that purifies the essence of a person, which can also refer to enactment of the arts such as music, dancing, language, and eloquence.

Saraswathi is usually depicted with four arms holding objects: a book (the vedas, a crystal mala or rosary (represents the power of meditation, inner reflection, and spirituality), a pot of water (the power of purification), and a musical instrument (typically a veena representing arts and sciences). Saraswathi is also associated with anuraga, the love for the rhythm of music which represents all feelings and emotions expressed through music. Saraswathi is associated with the swan which is often located at her feet and is said to discriminate between water and milk, drinking only milk as a sign of discernment. The swan is also a symbol of spiritual purity and perfection.

Saraswathi is also worshipped in the areas surrounding India and has influenced many of the following countries: Myanmar, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia. She also has a festival in Bali that has a long history. She is also worshipped in various places in India.

Saraswathi is a popular god worshipped in modern times and especially in southern India can often be seen as revered deity in daily life.

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Lakshmi_goddess of wealth

Lakshmi | Lakṣmī | लक्ष्मी

Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity, love, fortune, and is considered the embodiment of beauty. She is the wife of Vishnu and carries his active energy. Her fours arms represent purusartha, or the four primary aims of human life: Dharma, Kama, Artha, and Moksha and representations of her can be found in many Jain monuments as well. In Nepal and Southeast Asia, Vasudhara mirrors Lakshmi with some minor differences. She is Vishnu’s source of strength while maintaining the universe.

When Vishnu incarnated on Earth, Lakshmi took form as Sita (when Vishnu became Rama), Radha (Krishna’s lover), Rukmini, and Satyabama. In ancient Hindu scripture all women are declared to be embodiments of Lakshmi. The marriage between Lakshmi and Vishnu is the paradigm for Hindu religious wedding ceremonies. Their relationship forms the basis for partnership in Hinduism.

Archeologists suggest that Lakshmi’s worship may have originated around 100BC. Statues and iconography have been dated from the second half of the first millennium CE. In modern India, Lakshmi is regarded as the goddess of wealth and Diwali and Sharad Purnima are festival celebrations held in her honor.

Lakshmi is another great example of a deity that evolved in the ancient Hindu texts and was mentioned only once in the Rig Veda as a kindred mark or sign of auspicious fortune. In the later Arthara Veda, she evolved into a deity with multiple incarnations and large amounts of plurality and is associated with good luck, good fortune, prosperity, success, happiness, and the good. Later, she is regarded as the incarnation of beauty, and the goddess of fortune and was associated with Vishnu. In later myths, she is associated with the creation of the universe, giving diverse gifts to many of the other gods (ie Indra gets force and Sarasvati receive nourishment). In the later epics, such as the Mahabharata, she personifies wealth, riches, beauty, happiness, loveliness, grace, charm, and splendor.

The word Lakshmi is derived from lakṣ (लक्ष्) and lakṣa (लक्ष) which mean to perceive, observe, know, understand and goal, aim, or objective. This together form knowing goals, or perceiving and understanding objectives.

Lakshmi is usually sitting or standing on a lotus flower and carries a couple in her hands which represent the ability to grow beautifully from dirty or filth in circumstances. She is also seen with elephants (symbolizes work, activity, strength, rain, fertility, and abundance) and an owl (symbolizes striving to observe and discover when surrounded by darkness, that also becomes blind in daylight, a reminder to refrain from greed and ignorance after knowledge and wealth is acquired).

Lakshmi also has a multitude of other names: Padma, Kamala, Padmapriya, Padmamaladhara devi, Padmamukti, Padmakshi, Padmahasta, Padmasundari, Vishnupriya, Ulkavahini, Ambika, Manushri, Mohini, Chakrika, Kamalika, Aishwarya, Lalima, Indira, Kalyani, Nandika, Nandini, Rujula, Vaishnavi, Samruddhi, Narayani, Bhargavi, Sridevi, Chanchala, alaja, Madhavi, Sujata, Shreya, Maheshwari, Madhu, Madhavi, Paramaa, Janamodini, Tripura, Tulasi, Ketaki, Malati, Vidhya, Trilochana, Tilottama, Subha, Chandika, Devi, Kriyalakshmi, Viroopa, Vani, Gayatri, Savitri, Apara or Aparajita, Aparna, Aruna, Akhila, Bala, Tara, Kuhu, Poornima, Aditi, Anumati, Avashyaa, Sita, Taruni, Jyotsna, Jyoti, Nimeshika, Atibha, Ishaani, Kalyani, Smriti and probably her most used abbreviation, Sri.

In Eastern Indian traditions, Lakshmi is regarded as a form of Devi, along with Durga or Shakti. Lakshmi, Parvati, and Saraswathi are regionally considered to be from of Durga in West Bengal and Odisha, which are usually considered separate in India. She is the personification of spiritual fulfillment and is the embodiment of Param Prakriti, which purifies, empowers, and uplifts the individual.

It is obvious that Lakshmi represents an elusive and evolving subject of wealth and prosperity as well as the divine feminine aspect of spiritual energy. She is a powerful symbol in Hinduism and is worshipped often in modern India with statues and symbolism apparent in many of the places that I am currently near in Mysore. Her evolution is as interesting as her origins and I continue to find tremendous insight in the symbolism applied to her forms.

 

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krishna.com depiction of Krishna

Krishna | कृष्ण

Krishna is one of the most celebrated and loved gods in the Hindu pantheon and is generally recognized as an avatar of lord Vishnu, one of the trimurti. Krishna is a god of love, sometimes depicted as a god-child playing a flute, a prankster, a model lover, a divine hero, or as the supreme being as described in the Bhagavad Gita.

Krishna is described in the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Vishnu PuranaHe is also named Vasudeva, Bala Krishna, Gopala, Govinda, so you may hear these names mentioned where they are referring the Krishna.

Krishna’s skin color is usually black or dark blue which is due to the word’s use as an adjective to mean black or dark blue. The waning moon is called Krishna Paksha meaning darkening. It is sometimes referred to as “all-attractive”. Most of the variances and differences occur regionally, but is easily recognized in depictions.

Krishna is often shown with cows, which is significant as representing him as a divine herdsmen, as is often shown as a baby stealing butter from the neighbors houses. It is generally accepted as possible that Krishna dates as far back in time as Shiva, to the Indus Valley Civilization, but neither can be proven to date before that time period.

In depictions for the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is often shown with multiple arms and multiple heads which denote power with attributes of Vishnu such as the chakra or as a charioteer.

Sometimes you will hear Krishna referred to as Bala Krishna and this is the child-god form of the deity and is often worshipped. He is seen as having conceived himself as a being that is one with Vishnu. This is a divine conception, rather than a virgin conception as in the bible. While his mother was pregnant, it was said that she was hard to look at because of the light that accompanied her radiance. They say that this light is in reference to a Vedic hymn that expresses an unknown divine, or golden child.

If you study Krishna, you will start to see a lot of parallels with Jesus, if you are familiar with Christianity. Both are sun-gods, or represent the ‘light of the world’. Both also seem to have been grounded in the god Osiris which is an account of a demigod of the sun, and the potential first influence of this story is from the ancient civilization of Mesopotamia. Some believe there to be multiple Christs, some believe that Christ was completely fabricated in about 400AD to unify the Roman Civilization under a single symbol. Most of Christianity’s roots are pagan, which largely influences the Christian Calendar to circulate with the seasons. There is a good amount of evidence that say Jesus did exist, though the bible’s accuracy is another question entirely. Almost all scholars agree that the writers were successors to the original tradition and wrote the 4 new testaments over 50 years after Christ’s death and crucifixion, so it is generally agreed that the bible is not a historically accurate document, by any means.

Moving back to Krishna, he is best known as Arjuna’s charioteer and advises Arjuna when he comes to the battle distraught and unwilling to use his bow to fight. The Gita talks about righteous war, the nature of the divine, and the eternal nature of the cosmos, which is depicted in a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna.

The relationship between Vishnu and Krishna is often debated and is viewed as complex and diverse, though many consider Krishna to be a full incarnation of Lord Vishnu.

In about the 6th century AD a movement started in India called the Bhakti movement, which then spread into the United States in 1965, when Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada visited New York from West Bengal. Krishna’s name was chanted in many public places in the US and was spread by the ISKCON (institute for Krishna consciousness). There are also stories of Krishna in Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, and other Indian and southeast asian religions.

Krishna’s flute is often used as symbolism to represent revelation of the divine and Krishna is depicted with it quite often. It represents a divine dance that is the nature of the divine and that the revelations of divine come about through this mystical dance with the divine. It is said that whenever he plays, you cannot help but dance.

Here’s a little mental picture of what it might be like to experience Krishna:

You are walking through a softly floored canopy of oak trees, hiding the sun with their small leaves. Soon, you hear a soft sound in the distance, a sweet melody that you can help but want to hear more of. So you move closer, but find that you do not know the direction that the sound is coming from. So you sit, to determine where this beautiful sound could possibly be coming from.

As you sit, the sound becomes a bit louder and you begin to realize that the sound was coming from inside of you all along. And as you sit quieter, more still, more peacefully, the music gets louder and louder, until you can’t hear anything else at all. It begins to overwhelm you until you open your eyes, and there, standing before you, is a small dark blue boy, maybe 10 years old, smiling at you in a way that makes you feel the dampness of your skin.

His eyes are whiter than stars and his gaze darker than the night. The boy pulls out his flute and begins to play. Soft at first, melting your thoughts and giving you nothing to do but feel, this boy becomes more and more enraptured by the song, bringing you with him. But you soon realize that this is no boy, nor a girl; in fact, the little child has qualities of both, but perfected. As you begin to rise and then dance with the flute, you lose all track of time, where you are, even who you are. The dance is all there is and it is you, unbroken, relentless, fearless in the dark of night.

Soon you begin to tire, and though the music grows sweeter, you can no longer listen because of your fatigue. Suddenly, a light opens, splitting through you like a knife.

You open your eyes to a purely white room, 4 walls, and a single bench, cushioned, for you to sit on. The child walks into the room, but now you can tell that something in the child has changed. With a quick grin and a wink, the boy disappears and in his place is a man with hundreds of heads and many arms, though all perfectly aligned with his body in a way that you could never explain. You can hardly see the figure clearly, he is betrothed in light. Each time you try to get a better look, the figure gets blurry once again.

An overwhelming power takes ahold of you and you can no longer see the light. You close your eyes one last time and breath, aware of your full exhale for the first time. And you find yourself seated, comfortable, with the soft grass beneath you and the strong trees above. But still, you hear a gentle flute music in the background, waiting for you to begin dancing once again.

 

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dharma

Dharma

The concept of Dharma is elusive to describe due to the complexity of the concept; it does not translate directly into english and is a complex esoteric Indian term to describe a vocation, calling, or path of righteousness that an individual follows in life. This extends out to the dharma of the world as a whole, which is either aligned or imbalanced (in which case it will soon be rebalanced). The idea exists in all of the Indian religions, most notably Buddhism and Hinduism, where Dharma is considered to be the path of duty and virtue that is right with the order of the universe. The path is righteous and winds in accordance with the laws of Karma until the cycle of Samsara is broken and Maya gives way to Moksha. The ultimate journey Dharma leads to the doorway of enlightenment.

Enlightenment is the unlocking of the mind and freedom from the illusions of consciousness, more particularly thoughts. Thoughts take away from your ability to be present and receive the beauty and feel of the world around you, so at this point in the evolution of consciousness they are not necessary. Union is felt between all beings and awareness is supreme, a light against the darkness of ignorance. At least that is what it is supposed to be like.

Ultimately, enlightenment has to be a spectrum, relative, as all things are. People that push the envelope, disrupt, change us, evolve us, these are the ones that are bringing enlightenment to the world. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, modern musicians, peace advocates, technologists pushing the world forward like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are all people bringing enlightenment to our lives, but its hard to get to the truth of their lessons in the face of the lies that we are told from our first thoughts.

“(stop thinking) just do it”
“What’s (missing) in your wallet?)”
“The best part of waking up (is our shit coffee) in your cup”

We are bombarded with commercials and TV that convinces us to think about things certain ways that do not in any way conform to reality. Many people in the world succumb to the illusion that the world depends on things, when in fact the world depends upon human time. Instead of being focused internally, many are focused externally on survival, on being able to feed hungry mouths and try to win measures of comfort and vacations from your job that allow some measure of relaxation and bliss in an otherwise unfulfilling lifestyle. But the world is slowly changing.

People are learning to prosper and how to share abundance. Nice things are only as nice as the people you can share them with and comfort is something that every human should have access to, but we are slowly learning how to take care of ourselves. The world is still divided and disconnected, but slowly it is connecting itself, using tools like the internet, cell phones, satellites, and so much more. We have hope for the future because it seems like a mass awakening is occurring, people are waking up.

Practices like yoga and meditation are quickly becoming very available to the wealthy of the world, and soon after, the noble arts of internal surrender, meditation, reflection, breathing exercises, and energy movement will become available to everyone. In order to truly unite the world, people must unite through action; words mean nothing and have no weight when it comes to character. People are going to learn to prosper in ways that the world has never before know. I strongly believe that yoga is going to be one of those ways, I think the world is going to reform with the spread of eastern philosophies and ideas in the West.

The world is learning to find its Dharma. The question of dharma beckons the questions of existence: Why does life exist? Does life have a purpose? What is the next step of evolution? Dharma attempts to answer these questions by saying that it is life’s purpose to be lived fully, completely. The next step of evolution is peace and life was meant to flourish and spread and unite the universe in life. Being is the purpose of all things.

Dharma can also be considered vocational, or like a job. For instance, a doctor would have a dharma of helping sick people, or a computer programming would have a dharma of making more efficient algorithms for people to connect through the internet. I believe I find my dharma through teaching and practicing yoga, but it is far more complicated than just that. Music, traveling, friends, and family to name a few factors.

According to Hinduism, the stability of the universe is dharma, the earth, gravity, the laws of physics are all propagated by this righteous force that is leading life. Dharma is intrinsically related to truth, or the natural and changeless state of all things, also known as Satya. The Buddha is the one that lived Dharma and his release into nirvana gives a model for us to follow.

I think that perhaps the way to the true core of your being, of find your true dharma, is through silence and being alone. The buddha was alone for extended periods of time, many believe that Jesus was isolated as an Essene for his formative years, and many of the most famous transcendentalists isolated themselves. So did the most famous of philosophers. It gets to the core of your humanity, what is at the base of your existence. Your temporality.

I think this is what I am going to try to do in India. See how much stillness I can find within myself. Maybe on the way I’ll find some truth.

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Vishnu

Vishnu

Vishnu is my favorite god, I think he is the best representation of the type of god that sustains the universe out of all the mythologies and religions. Vishnu has light blue skin like clouds, and is eternal powerful; he works in unison with Shiva to maintain the universe. Vishnu lives in Vaikuntha, the realm of eternal bliss and happiness and the resting place for the souls who have attained Moksha, or liberation from Samsara. His abode lies beyond space, time, and the material universe, immeasurable and infinite. He sits on Ananta Shesha, his snake with a thousand heads in an ocean of milk, the Ksheera Sagara. He has ten avatars, or incarnations including Krishna and Rama. His purpose is to rejuvinate Dharma and give the universe sustenance. But he is popularly known as the one to grant Moksha, or release from the material world.

Vishnu is a self-born deity. This again promotes the universe as an infinite expansion-regression system, with neither end nor beginning, which I find fascinating. This coincides with the Jain believe that the universe is infinite and has always been. It also has interesting similarities with Satya, the idea of truth, in that it is immeasurable, immutable, all-pervading, and absolute.

The Rig Vedic texts, one of the oldest existing documents, refer to Vishnu as the sun. Religion is essentially the same in that it is different forms of sun worship. Because if you really stop to think about it, the sun is the source of life for this planet. I think without it, it wouldn’t take long for everything on earth to die. Maybe it would take less than a week.

Harihara

Vishnu’s ideological figure evolved over time into the consort of Lakshmi, Lord Narayana, Purusha Sooktham, Vishnu Purana, and was made more distinct from Shiva, Brahman, and Surya (the sun god, who sun salutations are devoted to). Hanuman is often seen with Vishnu, in temples dedicated to Rama, Krishna, and Narasimha. Shiva and Vishnu have joined forms in one story, kind of like fusion in Dragonball Z, to form Harihara. Many of the more advanced philosophical Hindu teachers consider the both gods to be different aspects of the supreme being.

Vishnu is a popular god of Buddhism, especially in Sri Lanka, where many shrines are dedicated to him as the protector of Buddhism. He has 10 incarnations, a few notable ones that have associations with yoga poses are: Matsya (Matsyandrasana), Kurma (Kurmasana). He is also Krishna, Rama, and the Buddha. He returns to the universe to kick-ass and destroy demons as Rama, or to eradicate suffering as the Buddha, or to restore balance by saving the world from King Bali. Vishnu has too many names to count.

Vishnu, like many other Hindu gods, has many arms to represent his ability to work simultaneously, his supreme power and existence not bound by space or time. he holds a conch, a chakra, a mace, and a lotus flower in four of his hands when he is depicted, representing the universe, enlightenment, strength and eradication of demons, and divine perfection as an individual unfolds. His flying mount, the eagle garuda, represents the soul and the divine truth of the Vedas.

His godly powers are omniscience, sovereignty, manipulation of energy, strength, vigor, splendor, generosity, and compassion. A lot of these qualities are shown through Krishna, which is probably the most popular form of Vishnu. In AUM, he is the “u” and the vowel sound that rings deeply like ooooo. He sustains and creates.

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The Mahabharata | महाभारतम्

The Mahabharata is one of the two major epic stories written in Sanskrit in ancient India, the other being the Ramayana. The main works contained in the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita, an abbreviated Ramayana, the story of the princess Damayanti, and the Rishyashringa. The primary focus of the Mahabharata are the Purusarthas or four goals in life: Dharma – righteousness, Artha – prosperity, Kama – desire, and Moksha – spiritual liberation. Vyasa is the attributed author and is also a character in the work, though much of the information about his life conflicts with the work itself (many believe that the origins of the stories were written in about 800 BCE while the texts claim him to have lived from 3000-1500 BCE. He is also immortal according to Hindu legend and an avatar of Vishnu, meaning that he is still considered to be alive.

The Mahabharata is an extremely long work and is known as the longest epic poem with over 200,000 verses. There are over 1.8 million words in the epic, roughly ten times the size of the Odyssey and the Iliad combined. Ganesha, the god of unblocking obstacles, was said to have written the epic as long as Vyasa did not stop his dictation; Vyasa agreed to dictate under the condition that Ganesha must understand each verse as it was written. Many scholars compare its world-wide importance to Shakespeare, the Bible, the Qur’an, and the greek epics.

The story depicts a struggle for power amongst several dynasties. The climax occurs with the battle of Kurukshetra where the Pandavas, five brothers married to the same woman, were victorious over the Kauravas, their cousins. The epic ends with the death of Krishna, the coming of the fourth age where man degenerates from duty and morality. This is recognized as one of the first theories of a just war, which would be later debated around the world for centuries. This continues today with articles like the Geneva convention and the just war theory of the Vatican.

The story is quite long and detailed. This long, exhaustive religious and philosophical text led to some of the biggest advancements in society in the ancient world. It undoubtedly trickles down into our world today, influencing us in the way we view the world. My favorite part of the story is the battle with Arjuna also known as the Bhagavad Gita where Krishna explains the ways of yoga and detachment. The Mahabharata is long, fragmented, and disorganized, but the lessons from the stories are timeless and the themes are apparent even in today’s culture.

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The Monkey God Hanuman

Hanuman is a Varana, or a shapeshifting monkey-humanoid from the ancient Hindu epics the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Puranas, and Jain texts (Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism). He is a steadfast devotee of the god Rama (the seventh incarnation of Vishnu) and is an intricate part of the war against the demon king Ravana. Some texts presume him as an incarnation of lord Shiva, but in many texts he is mentioned as a son of Vayu, god of the wind. The name Hanuman has a few possible origins: one where he was struck in the jaw by Indria, king of the deities where hanu means jaw and man means prominent or disfigured; a second where hanu means killed or destroyed and man means pride, meaning one whose pride was destroyed; and finally a theory that hanuman means male monkey.

Hanuman is an intriguing character in many ways. He is viewed as an ideal devotee or Bhakta to Rama. He was also a lifelong Brahmachari or celibate in his devotion, which is believed to be his source of strength, especially by Indian wrestlers. In one tradition (my favorite) he is said to be born to Vayu and Anjana through the ritual of Dasharatha to have children. The sacred pudding that he gave his wives led to the birth of Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Shatrughna; however, by divine grace some of the pudding fell onto a kite and Vayu brought the kite on the wind to Anjana, in deep worship to Shiva in the forest who consumed the pudding. This led to the birth of Hanuman to Anjana; his mother was a spirit of the clouds and waters also known as an apsara.

The mythology of Hanuman’s childhood is also very interesting. He was quite mischievous during his childhood and would steal things from sages meditating in the forest and re-arrange their sacred artifacts. They placed a curse on him that he could only remember his abilities if he was reminded by another person. He also believed the sun to be a ripe mango and went to eat it, but clashed with Rahu and thrashed him, even though Rahu was supposed to be creating an eclipse. Indra was told of this by Rahu and struck Hanuman with a thunderbolt on the chin, causing him to fall to the earth unconscious. Vayu, upon seeing the attack, withdrew the air from the world. After seeing all of creation asphyxiate, Indra withdrew his thunderbolt and the devas bestowed multiple blessings of power upon Hanuman. In another story, Hanuman learned that Surya,the sun-god, was all-knowing and ascended to the sun to ask for his teaching. Surya told Hanuman that it would be impossible since his chariot was always moving, but Hanuman was undeterred and ended up being a most respected student of Surya.

Hanuman’s adventures occur in the Ramayana, more specifically in the 5th book called the Sundara Kanda. Hanuman meets Rama when Sita was kidnapped by Ravana and Rama’s brother Lakshmana and Rama are searching for her. He disguises himself to find their identities, but upon learning Rama’s identity prostrates himself. Rama then embraces him with warmth, beginning their epic friendship and Hanuman’s devotion to Rama.

Hanuman then begins his own search for Sita, which leads him to cross the sea. But Hanuman laments that his powers are not enough to cross with the other varanas, until Jambavantha reminds Hanuman of his virtues and he leaps across the sea to Lanka, where Ravana’s palace is. He finds Sita there, but she refuses to return with him saying that it would harm Rama’s honor. Hanuman then begins to wreak havoc on Lanka until he allows himself to be subdued and learns the size of Ravana’s armies. He then warns Ravana of Rama’s warning to return Sita to him and offers his forgiveness in return. Ravana becomes enraged and orders Hanuman to be killed until Ravana’s brother intervenes and reminds him that it is against the rules of engagement to kill a messenger. Ravana decides to light Hanuman’s tail on fire, but Hanuman enlarges himself and again wrecks havoc on Lanka, before returning to Rama.

Hanuman also saves his brother, Lakshamana, by delivering an entire mountain to him. Ravana tries several ways to stop him, even by expediting the rise of the sun, Surya. Hanuman grows in size to slow the sun’s rise and delivers the entire mountain to Lanka to save his brother. Rama embraces Hanuman to show that he is as dear to him as a brother and Hanuman releases his grip on Surya with apologies to his guru. Rama holds a celebration to honor his well-wishers and helpers and Hanuman enters without desiring a reward. As Hanuman comes to Rama, Rama is overwhelmed with emotion and embraces him with deep compassion for his work in the war against Ravana. Sita, knowing that Hanuman deserved more honor than any other, gave Hanuman the precious stones around her neck. When he receives it, Hanuman takes apart each stone saying that he won’t accept it unless Rama and Sita are inside. Many unbelieving witnesses watch and question Hanuman, saying he could not possibly be so devoted to Rama and Sita so Hanuman opens his heart to show them Rama and Sita inside.

Hanuman, after the war with Ravana, left to the Himalayas to record the Ramayana, including each detail of Rama’s deeds. Rama then departed for his supreme abode Vaikuntha. Hanuman requested to stay on earth as long as Rama’s name was worshipped. He is immortalized by his actions and is one of the most powerful and venerated gods in Hinduism. Hanuman is also on Arjuna’s flag in the Bhagavad Gita and stays with him during the entire battle, protecting his chariot from celestial weapons until at the end of the battle when Hanuman floats back into the sky, the chariot bursts into flames.

hanuman_statueHanuman is a god venerated by many traditions spread all over Asia, inferring that he is a very old deity and is intricate to the religious formations over the years. The biggest statue of Hanuman is in Murti and is 85 feet tall. Hanumanasana is the Sanskrit name for the splits in yoga, named that way for how Hanuman leapt over the ocean to rescue Sita.

 

Who are your favorite Hindu deities?

Hanuman is a fascinating character and worshipped for many of his devotional qualities; how do the stories speak to you about devotion in your life, in relationships, even your Dharma?

What resonates with your about these stories?

Let me know in the comments!

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Shiva (the god of Death)

Shiva is the god destroyer, his matted hair and ash smeared face sit silent in meditation or flow eternally in his cosmic dance of death. From his matted hair flows from the Ganges river in India and he often adorns himself with snakes, particularly cobras. He lives far secluded from the other gods in his abode in Mount Kailash, which is a real mountain from which many of the rivers in Asia begin. It is on top of this mountain that the destroyer of ignorance, suffering, illusion, and sadness finds his eternal meditation with his wife Parvati and sons Ganesha and Kartikeya. He is a simple herdsmen and yogi at certain times with his family, and at others he slays demons to protect the equilibrium of the universe. He also wears a garland of skulls, to show his victory over death and holds a three forked trident to represent the meeting of three worlds, immediate, internal, and external.

Shiva is a powerful god that creates change through chaos and destruction. The symbols of Shiva are extremely powerful, they bring a stoic freedom to find peace in each moment knowing that someday the moments will end. He is a part of the Trimurti and makes way for Brahman to create through his destruction. Vishnu preserves the continuous cycle; some claim Vishnu as the primary deity, called Vashnavism, and some claim Shiva as the primary god, called Shaivism. Together, they complete the cosmic cycle of death, rebirth, and life. Shiva is the cosmic dancer, and often slays demons with his trident while playing the damaru. Shiva is also well-known for playing the flute.

The final pose in a yoga asana series or sequence is devoted to Shiva. In Ashtanga in particular, the final meditation is focused on the death of the individual and release from the cycle of Samsara. He is the patron god of yoga and is one of the primary focal points of the philosophical traditions. Death is undoubtedly the primary reason yoga is practiced, whether it is to ensure a long life, to improve health and vitality, or to find meaning in life. Yoga helps us to come to terms with our own mortality and know that one day, we will stop breathing. But in that cessation is the beauty of the unknown and the release from this world that grants freedom that is unequaled.

The next time you are in Shivasana, meditate on your own death. It is very powerful and drops me into a deeper Samadhi every time, minimizing distractions. There are also many powerful chants used before class to destroy obstacles and invoke the presence of the great transformer. If you have different ways of showing love for Shiva, or ways that you know Shiva to be different, let us know!

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