A Skeptic’s Critique of the Hindu View of the Soul

In his introduction to my book On Hinduism, Ravi Heugle questions the validity of the soul’s existence. He equates the soul to the mechanism that moves a watch or clock. Ravi writes:

The soul will render itself superfluous to any consistent description of a life form. In describing a watch, if we understand all mechanisms and principles of operation, no additional idea or concept is necessary to explain its purpose, function of state. I have faith that I do not inhabit my body, but I am because of my body. The establishment of a unified blueprint of life by science will exile the soul and the assumption of the existence of the soul will prove itself to be invalid. Thereafter, the soul will solve serve as a potent synonym for human identity.

I believe this analysis disavows the soul because our human minds lack capacity to define their nature. Yet, lack of definition or explanation does not negate the soul’s existence, even if we can only grasp at the outer edges of its reality.

What is your view of the soul?

See A Skeptic’s Perspective in On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar.

Zero

The notion of zero is philosophical as well as mathematical in Hinduism. Here is an explanation:

The Sanskrit word for zero is sunya which translates as “nothingness.” Brahman, God in his formless, immutable, timeless, memory-less state prior to Creation, is called Nirguna Brahman or Brahman with no attributes. Nirguna Brahma exists in nothingness. With the happening of Creation, Nirguna Brahma becomes Saguna Brahma, the God with attributes who is Ishvar. Zero symbolizes God in nothingness. Zero added to or subtracted from any number does not change the number. The sum of zero and zero is zero. Zero added to or subtracted from itself remains zero. Multiplied by itself, zero is still zero. However, the addition of zero to the right of any number (without a decimal point) increases it up to infinity and its addition to the left of any number (with a decimal point) decreases it down to the infinitesimal.

Zero’s complement must be “everythingness.” Everythingness differs from everything just like “nothingness” differs from nothing. The idea of zero embraces the idea of its opposite, totality. We say God is everythingness and nothingness because we have no better words to describe the unfathomable existence or nonexistence that transcends itself. Thus, zero to Hinduism is more than a mathematical tool. It represents God’s truth that lies beyond human experience and the material world, truth that is just beyond the reach of the human mind.

See Chapter Three, Monotheism in On Hinduism, by Irina N. Gajjar

Dharma

The idea of dharma is a central belief of Hinduism. Its meaning cannot be easily described or translated. Like karma, it is a fundamental concept.

The essence of Dharma is duty, but it is more. It is a universal principle as well as a personal principle. Hindu scripture says:

Dharma is truth.

It is said that

one who speaks truth

speaks dharma

and one who speaks dharma

speaks truth.

Bhridaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.14

Dharma embraces family life, social life and spiritual life. It is the guideline known as Sanatana Dharma meaning Eternal Law or Eternal Order which actually defines Hinduism.

See On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar.

Rituals and Traditions

Now you know.
You know that you should do
what the holy books say is
right and good.
(Gita 16:24)

The Vedas prescribe the manner in which ceremonies, known as pujas, should be performed. The earliest described sacrificial rituals were undertaken to appease forces of nature, spirits, demons, and gods. Later they evolved into rituals dedicated to the worship of the absolute God. Today pujas remain an important center of Hindu life. They are festive events where God is respectfully given offerings of sweetmeats, fruit, flowers, and incense.

At large ceremonies, participants and visitors dressed in their finest clothes and adorned with jewelry come to homes and temples in happy moods. Most attendees enjoy worshipping with their friends and family and then sharing the treats that follow. They are attentive to the proceedings for a while, but not bound to absolute silence and many hope that the priest will move things along at a brisk pace.

An entire Veda, the Sama Veda, was dedicated to ceremonies in which the cannabis-like soma plant, similar to marijuana, was honored and used to modify states of consciousness. While partaking of this plant, ground up in milk or mixed into food, is no longer a current practice, the puja is still meant to be a pleasurable experience that brings about feelings of well-being. Religious ceremonies, whether elaborate or simple, belong to Hinduism’s living and growing memory.

Long standing cultural practices that link the present to the past become tradition. The practices of some persons reflect strong beliefs whereas those of others are more of habit. Certain traditions, like arranged marriage, have enduring effects while others, like eating sweets before undertaking a journey, are symbolic gestures.

It may take a great deal of effort to follow some traditions, like learning the language of one’s ancestors, or giving up meat, or going on distant pilgrimages. On the other hand, following other traditions, like wearing a particular gem stone for good luck, can be easy, enjoyable, or comforting. Traditional practices among Hindus vary from person to person, from family to family, from region to region, and from one community to another.

One could say that each Hindu follows a self-designed path that becomes his or her personal tradition. Although traditions are well established, they adapt to the times and circumstances. In the past, Hindu joint families were the norm. Work was passed down from father to son and a family was like a small commune where everyone worked for the common good.

Now, in India and worldwide joint Hindu families are breaking up and nuclear families are increasing in number. Children develop different skills and travel to study and to find work. Opportunities for a joint family to thrive as a single economic unit are becoming limited and less inclination exists to participate in a lifestyle that does not afford much privacy.

While Hindu practices are not cast in concrete, the beliefs underlying the practices have remained stable over the ages. People find the means to uphold traditions and to pass them along to successive generations. Hindus seek out lessons, classes, teachers, and media programs that reach out and teach the young new ways to preserve old ideals and ideas. Like-minded friends gather together and make purposeful efforts to preserve their valuable heritage and to pass it along to their children.

Hindu traditions touch most aspects of daily life. Language, dress, use of symbolic markings like a dot on the forehead or red powder in the hair parting, wearing the sacred thread or special bracelets, greeting others in a particular manner, praying, engaging in meditation or yoga, following astrological recommendations, observing dietary restrictions or fasts, respecting certain superstitions, visiting temples and shrines, or using particular Hindu names are some of the many traditions that are a part of Hindu life. People follow some traditions wholly and consistently while they follow others in part or from time to time. Not everyone in a family observes the same traditions, as not everyone finds every tradition relevant to his or her personal values or beliefs. However, everyone is expected to respect the traditions that their loved ones do observe.

Read more on Hindu Traditions in On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar

God and Karma 

Different Hindus perceive the relationship between God and karma in different ways. Some go so far as to say that karma determines the future and God does not exist or matter at all. Some equate the divine force with karma or believe that God creates karma.

Yet other individuals and Hindu schools of thought, more conventionally, see God as the dispenser of karma, which He tempers with divine mercy. Whatever their particular viewpoint, Hindu philosophers and laymen generally agree with the notion that good behavior earns merit and improves their karma and that misfortune is the product of prior bad behavior. Even those who do not fully believe in karmic power, tend to consider the idea of karma a plausible guideline for ethical living.

From On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar, Chapter One, Hindus and Hinduism; also available for purchase on Amazon.

Lord Krishna Shows His Scary Form

 

While Lord Krishna continues -in Chapter 11 of The Gita– to overwhelm us with His all encompassing splendor, His wonderful form becomes terrible. Arjun sees that all space between heaven and earth is filled by God and that all worlds are frightened.

In this scary appearance representing Kala or Time, God demonstrates karma in process. Warriors, already doomed, rush into the Lord’s multiple mouths like moths flying into a blazing fire. The Lord assures Arjun that he will prevail in this Great Mahabharata War.

Arjun begs God to reappear in His calm, gentle four armed form, a form which can be seen, Lord Krishna says, through endless love of Him.

Chapter 11 is one of the most dramatic chapters of the Gita. It illustrates not only the ideas, hopes and fears that human beings entertain about their Creator, but also our more sophisticated understanding of dimensions and of the confluenced integration of universes, time and space.

 

See, The Gita, A New Translation of Hindu Sacred Scripture, by Irina Gajjar

 

 

Lord Krishna’s Divine Birth 

In the Gita, Lord Krishna tells us He is born from time to time to protect goodness and destroy evil. He says:

You and I have passed through many births. 

I know them all but you do not remember. 

I am born from time to time 

whenever the good need my protection. 

I am born to destroy the bad and help the good. 

My birth is divine and those who understand 

this become part of Me 

and do not have to be born again. 

Gita: 4:5; 6; 7 

Human beings envision God in a form like ours. Thus we say that He created us like Him or now some of us consider perhaps like Her. At the same time we cannot imagine the Lord being conceived and born in the same fashion as we were.

In my view, the fact that so many of us not only imagine but also believe in miraculous birth validate our notion and make it true. The real question is what does truth mean?

For some answers, see The Gita, A New Translation of Hindu Sacred Scripture, and On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar.

Divided 

People of the world have been united and divided for as long as we can remember. City states warred for territory. Religious loyalists sought to impose their beliefs through both kindness and viciousness. Social groups fought to promote their values and to protect their status. Immigrants and emigrants crossed mountains, oceans ,and deserts going to seek fortunes or to escape from natural and man made disasters.

Thus, we organized ourselves into groups that collided with other groups. We identified with those who resemble or reflect ourselves and rejected those who differed in appearance, or belief, or custom. We forged alliances and fought enemies with different peoples at different times. Such behavior seems inherent to our humanity.

Many of us continue to force our beliefs, methodologies, and customs on others, believing them to be more truthful or superior. Of course we cannot impose our appearance on others except by blending our races over time. Our attitudes about racial mixing, though, are fraught with prejudice, attraction and other factors that are not totally clear even to ourselves.

Still, some of us resist and “otherizing” people who differ from ourselves. We try to appreciate at least some differences.

Today we are most focused on a political divide which encompasses all the other divides: racial, economic, social and cultural. We are most divided in our notion of unity. How should we govern ourselves and be governed? How should we behave publicly? Should we be polite or honest? What does civility mandate?

What is our responsibility to our fellow man, to our world and to future generations? Can we do or be me better? Can we achieve a more peaceful world? How much of our behavior is determined by our history and our destiny?

What do your think?

For some historical and philosophical insight consider the story of the great Mahabharata War which pitted families and friends against one another. See an analysis on pages 80-86 in On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar.

Vedic Worlds: Naraka

The seven lower worlds described in the Vedas are located in Naraka, the netherworld belonging to demons and souls that have become distanced from goodness and God.

Naraka is the plane of lower consciousness. Its regions are temporary hells of the mind and the universe. They are places where souls may wander for many ages or for just moments. Ancient scriptures accepted the relativity of time and space.

Thus, according to Vedic literature the duration of any soul’s existence in any world depends upon whether the time experienced by a particular soul expands or contracts and upon the time scales that are in play when souls migrate from world to world.

Hinduism believes that the destination of our soul depends upon our nature at the time of our death. Our nature is made up of different combinations of three attributes or qualities called gunas in Sanskrit.

These are sattva which is purity and truth, rajas which is desire driven activity, and tamas which is ignorance and inertia. Our actions and aspirations during our life create the sum of the attributes that make up our aura at death and determine what happens to our soul. Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita describes the essence of the Hindu understanding of reincarnation in just a few short lines:

If when we die,
we are mostly Sattva,
our spirit gets born again in the world of the wise and the pure.
If we are mostly Rajas,
our spirit gets born again on earth.
If we are mostly Tamas,
our spirit gets born in the body of a dumb, ignorant being.

For more on Vedic Worlds, read On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar.

Vedic Worlds: Bhuloka

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Vedic scriptures speak of fourteen worlds. Seven of the worlds exist on three higher planes: Bhuloka, the first world or the earthly plane; Antarloka, the second world or the subtle, astral plane; and Brahmaloka, the third world or the causal plane of God. These three planes can also be viewed as dimensions.

Bhuloka is the dense outermost dimension of being and consciousness. It is the physical world perceived by the senses. Antarloka is the intermediate dimension, the sphere of gods and higher beings, that exists in between the earthly plane and God’s plane. It is a subtle, astral dimension of consciousness. Brahmaloka belongs to Lord Brahma, the Creator. It is both the highest and the innermost dimension. It is pure spirit. Brahmaloka is also known as Karanaloka, the causal plane or as Sivaloka, the plane of Lord Siva the Destroyer who, through destruction, causes a new cycle of creation. To reach this plane is to become entirely absorbed or dissolved in the Divine Spirit and to merge into or become One with the eternal God. To enter Brahmaloka is to end the cycle of birth and death.

Learn more about the Vedic Scriptures in On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar.