Sacred symbols in Hindu spirituality

What do the sacred symbols of the swan, lotus, turtle, and peepal tree signify in Hindu spirituality? To find out, please read my new article from the Speaking Tree section of the Times of India (Jan 27, 2020).

You can right click on the images below and select “View Image” to read the article.

Learning, detachment and sacred symbols

Connecting to the source of happiness

Whenever we do something for God, our effort becomes a means of bringing us closer to God — the source of all happiness. In other words, we can gain happiness from our simplest efforts by offering them to God.

Efforts that convert to fame and money may have their importance in the real world but are considered perishables in spirituality. On the other hand, if we read a prayer to God or light a candle in front an image of God, it may bring more permanent results in terms of happiness. Why? Because God, who dwells in every heart and is the real witness of all our karma, gives the fruits of every action according to his own wish. If we have done something that should attract happiness, God will eventually give it to us.

Even career-conscious human beings can gain permanent happiness by forming a relationship with God. One approach of connecting to happiness on the workplace is by forming a harmony with karma yoga. To trigger this yoga, we have to make sure that we trust God. By remembering God at times and by surrendering our actions to God, we can remain unmoved by success and failure. As we move forward, we will see that our trust on God makes God’s grace the source of our happiness, not material success.

Knowledge from scriptures and self-realized individuals has its importance in guiding us towards happiness. In fact, scriptures supposedly provide us with viewpoints of human beings, generally saints, who have already realized God.  Because God may directly guide a human being towards himself through inspirations and other means, personal experiences are equally important in spirituality. Personal spiritual experiences can range from chanting a name of God and listening to discourses to having a face-to-face meeting with God (darshan), where applicable. In our professional endeavours or our spiritual journey, whenever in doubt, we can always request God to guide us rather than making concrete assumptions about how the universe works or what our favourite scripture actually says.

God’s grace may be essential for liberation

No matter how focused and self-assured we happen to be in our spiritual pursuits, our own potential may not be adequate to give us deliverance from the universe. This is one reason why devotional saints have considered the grace of God so important in the context of liberation. Surrender of the self to the Divine makes us more worthy of His grace, which is our ticket to gaining eternal proximity to God.

Reflecting on the glory of God’s grace, Saint Tulasidasa has said, “Ja par kripa Rama ki hoi, ta par kripa kare sab koi,” which basically means, “Whoever is blessed by the grace of God wins the grace of every single being in the universe.” For human beings, it is the grace of God that transforms as guidance and blessings from mentors and saints, as guidance from scriptures, as positive energy from places of worship, and as the development of virtues like forgiveness and patience.

It is God’s grace that protects us from all kinds of sufferings, brings us in contact with true and spiritual friends, gets reflected as selflessness in our work, and provides us with food and other basic needs. God’s grace, in one of its highest forms, becomes bhakti (devotion), the basis of our spiritual connection to God. Once bhakti — the love of God — is granted to us, peace, bliss, and liberation always follow it.

What nurtured the caste system in ancient India?

I am sharing my answer to a Quora question. Casteism is a sensitive topic for many human beings. Please feel free to put your views in the comments section.

  • In ancient India, caste system became a social problem when members of the Indian society lost freedom in selecting their professions. Downward mobility was allowed; you could not move upwards. As an example, a priest or ruler could become an employee in a bookstore, but a bookstore employee could not become a ruler if he or she wanted to. The ancient hierarchy is as follows: Educators and Priests (Class I; Brahmin) → Rulers and Defence Professionals (Class II; Kshatriya) → Entrepreneurs (Class III; Vaishya) → Employees (Class IV; Shudra)
  • Casteism was not a problem created by the so-called higher caste individuals; it was more about people in political power misusing their power. However, in earlier times, unlike today, most people in power came from the higher castes (mainly Brahmins and Kshatriyas). Accordingly, Brahmins and Kshatriyas, in general, can’t be held responsible for casteism; only the individuals who misused power in ancient times can be partly blamed for it.
  • If we look at ancient World History, selected people in political power have misused power even in Europe. Misuse of power is always immoral, even when the phenomena involved is not labelled as casteism by historians.
  • Today’s India has been facing a faculty shortage for a while, maybe due to lesser perks. This indicates that people are not that interested in teaching — a job that Brahmins used to do in the past. People in ancient times were more interested in the privileges that came with it, say the permission to ride palanquins and elephants.
  • Casteism has been a social-political problem of the Indian subcontinent; it is not a problem of Hinduism, which is a global democratic religion. The saints of the Bhakti Movement, most of whom were from the so-called higher castes, ensured that casteism remains eliminated from true Hindu spirituality.
  • It appears that many ancient scholars may have even altered some of the scriptures to suit their needs. Many passages in Hindu scriptures are unnecessarily Brahmin-centric and appear out of context; they may be later additions. Because internal inconsistencies and interpolations may be present in scriptures of every world religion, we need to avoid the My scripture is perfect paradigm while reading scriptures and read them selectively.
  • We must understand that God does not discriminate on the basis of caste. At the same time, Brahmin-bashing is immoral.
  • We should remember that many of the devotional saints who handed over spiritual knowledge to society, like Sri Ramananda, Saints Tulasidasa, St. Thyagaraja, Sri Ramanujacharya, Sri Adi Shankarahcarya, St. Gyaneshwar and others were all born in Brahmin families. (Saints were considered beyond caste, but that is a different issue.) In North India, Sri Ramananda had the biggest role in opposing casteism. This shows that many people from the higher castes did think differently and supported goodness as opposed to casteism.
  • Many human beings from the so-called higher castes sacrificed their lives between 1200-1947 to free India from foreign rule. The period between 1200-1850 could have been politically and economically the worst for India, and foreign rule was unfortunate for everyone in India, irrespective of their castes.

Does Hinduism support free will?

Hinduism does not give a single answer that fits everyone; depending on whether the spiritual seeker believes in a non-dualistic or dualistic philosophy, the person’s stand on free will may be different.

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From the non-dualist’s perspective

The Advaitin or non-dualist believes that events of the physical universe are like waves rising from an ocean, symbolizing God. This viewpoint supports no free will. All human actions, in reality, find their source in God. If an egoistic feeling of free will is present, it is due to illusion or due to the absence of God-realization. For the God-realized saint who has experienced the oneness of the self and God, the question eventually becomes redundant.

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From the dualist’s perspective

Many believers of dualism support the existence of free will, even if they are not aware of this. It is even possible that free will was granted to human beings by God. The existence of free will does find some support in the early chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, depending upon which translation/interpretation is used. The scripture holds that karma of the past are responsible for our circumstances in the present moment. Supporting free will puts the blame of a human’s present circumstances (and of distress in the world) on the human being rather than on God. For most people, having some free will is a better answer for many purposes, even if it is not true. In spite of being an Advaitin, Sri Aurobindo (b. 1872), a famous Hindu philosopher, has stated, “The sense of free will, illusion or not, is a necessary machinery of the action of Nature, necessary for man during his progress, and it would be disastrous for him to lose it before he is ready for a higher truth [1].”

As for God-realized devotional saints (bhakti saints), their answer may not differ from that of the Advaitin. People in the refuge of God act in accordance with God’s wish, for they become God-inspired. Because most classical books on Hindu spirituality have been written by God-realized people, books generally discourage free will in Hinduism. The devotional, even if dualistic, generally discourage free will as they find it egoistical, in relation to God.

Reality may be perceived differently by a commoner in comparison to a saint; it is possible that reality is dynamic, and it changes for the spiritual seeker as he or she evolves spiritually. Even if free will is initially present and has been granted by God (while creating the universe), it may get renounced on our path towards God.

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Free will and predeterminism

If a group of 50 people are requested to select between vanilla ice cream and chocolate ice cream, would God know the outcome beforehand? Would he know how many people would choose vanilla and how many would choose chocolate? Yes, he should; every choice will depend on one’s disposition, which, in turn, depends upon samskaras or karmic impressions. Choices made within the karmic field, if present, are in accordance with the laws of nature [2], defined by God. This does not mean that free will is not present; God can still figure out the future and stop an act if He wants to.

God may have hidden some answers from us while creating the universe; the existence of free will may be one of them. But devotional spirituality aims at recognizing the God-centricity of the universe, working in accordance with God’s wish, and aspiring to eventually reach God.

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[1] Essays on the Gita by Sri Aurobindo

[2] According to Hindu philosophy, Nature binds all eternal souls to the material world through her three modes – goodness, passion, and darkness. Please check out this article for an introduction to these modes of nature.

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