What do the Shiva Purana and the Bhagwad Gita tell us about prasadam? How is offering food to God related to bhakti (devotion)? To find out, please read my new article from the Speaking Tree section of the Economic Times.
I have already talked about the four aims of human life in a previous post. Interestingly, principles from Vedic astrology can be used to learn what the four aims of life involve in the Hindu way of living. Moreover, some astrological principles can be learned and applied even if we do not believe in future telling.
The four aims of life include dharma (righteousness and fulfilment of duties), artha (wealth), kama (desires and fulfilment of dreams), and moksha (liberation). Out of these, eventual liberation or reaching God happens to be the ultimate aim of Hindu life. And artha and kama may have to be coupled with dharma to maintain the former two objectives on the right track.
Everything belonging to Taurus-Virgo-Capricorn (artha trikona or wealth triangle; earth signs) can be categorized within artha. Accordingly, earning money, employment, professional growth, aspiration for recognition, honesty, discipline, perseverance, perfection, and a realistic or down-to-earth approach in life are artha influences.
Communication, expression, aspiration for emotional relationships, entrepreneurship, owning a business, team work, nurturing artistic talent, technological pursuits, aspiration for a new electronic gadget, philanthropy, and a logical-analytical approach to problem solving are Gemini-Libra-Aquarius influences (kama trikona or desire triangle; air signs). Accordingly, they belong to the domain of kama .
Dharma includes the love of God, creativity, education, work ethics, a traditional outlook, leadership, aspiration for learning philosophy, enthusiasm, kindness, guidance by a spiritual guru, and an idealistic-creative approach in life, which are all Aries-Leo-Sagittarius influences (dharma trikona or righteousness triangle; fire signs). On the other hand, seeking happiness, finding peace in the world, caring for humanity, research, aspiration for learning occult, transformation, meditation, renunciation, and an emotional-intuitive approach in life are moksha objectives, belonging to the domain of Cancer-Scorpio-Pisces (moksha trikona or liberation triangle; water signs; ).
 We should carefully note that kama in the context of the four aims of life means desire, not lust, and does not have an inherent negative connotation. On the other hand, in the Bhagavad Gita, when Lord Krishna describes kama in the context of the three gates to hell, he is talking about lust (16:21). Context can definitely change the meaning of a word.
 Every astrology chart has a balance of qualities from the four types of astrological signs. Relatively more planets in the liberation triangle does not directly correlate with higher chances of liberation. Being born in a specific sign of the zodiac will not supposedly create an advantage (in any sphere of life) over individuals from the other zodiac signs; the different signs probably reflect differences in disposition.
I am sharing some Hindu beliefs that I personally find significant. Though these beliefs are popular, I would not like to impose them on all Hindus.
Existence of Truth
Hindus believe in the existence of a supreme reality. For most, this refers to the Divine — Rama, Shiva, or Durga. For the atheistic, this could refer to supporting the notion that goodness is a better option in life than hurting anyone. After all, the actual word for Hinduism is “Sanatana Dharma,” which means Eternal Righteousness.
Multiplicity of paths
Hindus believe that there is more than one way to approach the ultimate reality and therefore respect alternate viewpoints. They understand that more than one right answer may exist for every question. This aids in maintaining the dynamic nature of Hinduism.
Just like beings can amend the constitution in a democracy, the knowledgebase of Hinduism can be updated. This does not mean that anyone can write a new Upanishad. It means that we can become a Brahman-rishi or a bhakti saint one day and then write a new Purana or Upanishad.
Because of Hinduism’s adaptability, every vote, including that of the unrealized, counts in Hinduism. Because every viewpoint has some lesson, it is worth listening to, though we do not have to follow it.
Liberation for all
Freedom is a property of the soul; every being deserves it and eventually reaches a state of total bliss. This is the final aim of life in Hinduism.
Everything other than the Divine and his name is perishable or less permanent.
Sita-Rama, the queen and king of the universe, the Bhavani-Shiva, our divine parents, continuously observe our actions, including the intention with which they are performed. Saying “sorry” for our bad karma may wash away some of our karma, but we still have to change ourselves to reach bliss.
Hindus believe in the existence of grace (kripa), but even the best saints and philosophers of Hinduism do not quite understand how the grace of Rama works. So I’ll stop here as well.
Bhakti and realization are independent of philosophy. If we like a specific philosophy or Vedantic commentary and want to use it on our path to God, we can. But all theories are optional; they are not necessary for reaching God.
Question 1: A guy hits his hand on the firm surface of a table. Do you think his hand will get hurt too?
Question 2: A child is sitting with his parents and eating a sandwich. A guy enters the room and throws the child’s lunch box on the floor. The kid starts crying. Do you think that there would be some negative consequences for this guy?
Question 3: The child is now sitting in an empty room (with no one around). The guy throws the child’s lunch box on the floor. The kid starts crying. Do you still think that the event would somehow affect the guy in the future?
(Skip the questions below if you said No to Question 3.)
Question 4: A guy sees a child eating a sandwich and gets irritated for no reason. Rather than throwing the child’s lunch box or saying anything to the child, he starts cursing the innocent child in his own mind. Do think that Nature would still teach the guy a few things about kindness?
Question 5: Do you think that if the guy in Question 3 did not learn the significance of kindness in the present lifetime, Nature would get back to him in the next lifetime?
If you said Yes to Question 1, you believe in the well-established scientific law that is often worded similarly to the karmic law.
If you said Yes to Question 2, you believe that negative consequences follow a wrong action, at least when human observers are present.
If you said Yes to Question 3, you believe in the karmic law; you probably believe that Nature is always watching everyone’s actions.
If you said Yes to Question 4, you believe in the karmic law and believe that karma includes all thought processes.
If you said Yes to Question 5, you believe in the karmic law and the reincarnation principle, which work together in Hinduism.
Disclaimer: It is better to trust the Divine than a human understanding of any spiritual law. Also, the final aim of Hindu life is to transcend karma.
Sri Ramanujacharya has had a permanent and one of the strongest impacts on the Hindu mind when it comes to contemporary Bhakti Yoga. Though the differences in the philosophical models of Advaita and Vishistadvaita may not be so obvious and relevant in everyday worship of our favorite form of God, they are useful if we wish to examine the diversity of the Vedantic traditions.
In Advaita, our soul (jivatma) and the Supreme Soul (paramatma) are identical in essence. And jnana (spiritual knowledge) is usually defined as the realization of our oneness with the Supreme Soul. However, in vishistadvaita, our soul is the body of Bhagavan. This difference makes God our antaryami, the divine being who resides within our heart and controls the universe but still remains unknown to the soul because of his maya. Accordingly, for this devotional school, jnana refers to the realization that our soul is eternally dependent on Bhagavan and that God is the sole reason of our existence. And in place of saying, “Everything is Brahman,” devotees of this school reflect a feel of surrender, “Bhagavan is everything for us.”
When discussing Hinduism, it is important to note that there are many schools in this liberal “way of life.” And for perfect harmony, it may not be fair to impose the basic principles of our favorite school on the followers of the neighboring school.
Reference: Gita Bhashya by Sri Ramanujacharya
In the absence of a set of instructions from a founder or a single book to follow, learning about Hinduism can be somewhat difficult for a novice. The main obstacle comes from its diversity, which later turns out to be its biggest strength. “Which book should I study?” and “What are Hinduism’s basic beliefs?” are two popular questions that a beginner usually asks. While “the Bhagavad Gita” can be a reliable answer to the first question and an explanation of some theories including karma, dharma, reincarnation, moksha, and atma can be a way to begin answering the second question, there is an essential principle that needs to be covered even before we begin learning about Hinduism.
This essential principle can be summarized as follows: Hinduism is too vast to be studied in its entirety. Accordingly, the philosophies from rishis, gurus, or saints that we come across at first should not limit us from respecting the alternate Hindu theories or paths to realization that are available. In the context of finding study material, we cannot pick up a recent book on Hinduism from a library and accept it as an authoritative text. Nor can we study the Vedas, Upanishads, Epics, Puranas, the various philosophical systems, literature by the Bhakti saints, and India’s cultural tradition – all at once. So one practical approach may be to inform ourselves (from introductory books and discussions) that Hinduism presents many spiritual choices, explore some of the popular ones, and then deeply study what interests us the most from this vast ocean of knowledge. At the same time, when we confidently realize that the same Brahman* (or Rama or Shiva) is being focused upon in every scripture, teaching, celebration, mantra, and ceremony, we no longer have to spend time in collecting more information in our area of interest. But the choice of when to stop collecting information and utilize what we have learned also rests with us.
Learning that Hinduism presents countless choices to a spiritual seeker is not only helpful to non-Hindus who want to learn about this religion (or way of life) but is necessary for Hindus as well, for many practicing Hindus are also vulnerable to limiting their religion to what they like the most.
*In fact, all Hindus are not required to believe in Brahman.