How to tell Hinduism to Your Child? – K Aravinda Rao : Part 5 (9 & 10 Chapters)

18 Dec 2014 2629 Views

Chapter - 9 : Who Am I?


  The perennial philosophy is expressed most succinctly in the Sanskrit formula – ‘tat twam asi’(That art thou); the Atman, or the immanent eternal Self is one with Brahman, the Absolute principle of all existence; and the last end of every human being, is to discover the fact for himself.  - Aldous Huxley


9.1. Social Identity

Most of us have an identity card or a social security card. In addition we carry a visiting card mentioning our status, qualifications and job details. When we come home we belong to a particular religion, may be a sub-division of that religion. In addition we are also male or female, father or son and husband or wife. Our identity depends on the relationships we have with various persons or institutions. All our interactions with fellow humans are deeply influenced by our understanding of the above identifications.

Vedanta says that this is not your real identity. When a person is stripped of all the above identities, he is merely a human being. He is equal to any other living being. Like all living beings he exists, he experiences the world with his senses and feels happy or unhappy. He has a physical body, supported by some energy system based on intake of food, five senses perceiving five different things and transmit to mind where these impressions are processed and collated and the ‘I’ in him is happy about it.

9.2. Evolution of the Body-Mind Complex

Our Vedic sages speculated on the formation of the physical body and told interesting facts. In the earlier chapter on creation we learnt that it is consciousness which is manifesting in different ways, starting from a blade of grass to mighty animals. We saw the lines from the Upanishad saying that the five elements  – space, air, fire, water and earth appeared from the Supreme Being. Ironically, the Supreme Brahman has no doer-ship, we saw. A manifestation in Brahman, called māyā was the material cause for all the creation. Maya cannot be anything other than consciousness. It is in fact, comparable to the giant wave, which we saw in an earlier example. This was called Iswara, the over lord of the universe.

The actual process of evolution of body is like this.

The creative power māyā is said to have three characteristics  or tendencies in it. They are called gun a-s which are called sattva, rajas and tamas. This is a postulation based on a lot of empirical observation. If we observe human nature we find three tendencies. Some are quiet, contented, peaceful and contemplative type. Some are aggressive, acquisitive and dominating type. Some others are lazy, slothful, lacking in initiative and dull type. The psychologists may call them personality types, but this is the observation of the ancient sages. All human activity – good, bad and ugly – is the result of the three gun a-s.

This can be seen in animals too. Some are quiet and bovine, some are aggressive and some are lazy (python).

It is also observed that the food we eat influences our minds because of the three above noted characteristics in that. Some types of food cause quietness and contribute to health. Some cause heat in the body and related changes while some others cause dullness of mind. The depressants are derivatives of such food types only.

The sages observed the three dispositions or tendencies in everything in the universe. The Bhagavad Gita says that there is nothing in the universe which is not a product of the above three tendencies (18-40).

Māyā, otherwise called prakti is the source for everything in the universe. The above three gun a-s intermix in infinite number of combinations and produce the diversity in the universe. The first fall out of this is the five elements which we know – earth, water, fire, air and space. These five elements too have the three gun a-s in them, which lead to further evolution. All living and non-living things are products of the five elements only.

The sattva component of the elements evolves into the mind and senses of all animals, including man.

The rajas component of the elements evolves into the organs of action (hands, feet and other limbs) of all animals.

The tamas component of the elements evolves into the gross elements around us.

We have five senses, each sense able to cognize only one sense object. The nose can only notice smell, the eye can only notice form of an object and so on. The mind is able to cognize all the five sense objects. Senses and mind are said to evolve as follows.

The sattva component of space is said to evolve into the sense of hearing.

The sattva component of air is said to evolve into the sense of touch.

The sattva component of fire is said to evolve into the sense of sight (fire also gives light).

The sattva component of water is said to evolve into the sense of taste.

The sattva component of earth is said to evolve into the sense of smell.

The collective sattva component of all the five elements is said to evolve into mind. The mind is able to collate the five types of sensory signals presented to it by the five senses.

Vedanta analyzes the stages of mind in four levels. The stage of simple cognition in the mind is called manas and the stage of analyzing that cognition is called buddhi. At this stage there is a notion of ‘I’, that ‘I have known this’. This stage is called ahaṅkāra, the notion of ‘I’. When an experience is recalled and relived at a later stage it is called cittam.

Bhagavad Gita summarizes the above discussion in the chapter relating to the connection between the corporeal body and consciousness (13:5-6). The Upanishads and subsequent texts of Vedanta discuss the above topic in great detail but it has been very briefly mentioned here.

We are aware that in addition to the mind and senses we have another important component, the life force. This is called prān a-śakti. The living beings cannot survive without breathing. The air system in the body is said to be the life force.

9.3. Layers of Personality

If we contemplate on all the above, we see that there are several layers in the personality of any living being. The first layer is that of the gross body with flesh, blood and bones (Vedanta calls it annamaya sheath). The next level is that of life force (called prān a sheath). These two are of no use unless there is intelligence. Hence the mind and senses are said to be the next higher level (mind sheath). The next higher level is that of the self which is the experiencer (the ‘I’), and it is called vijñānamaya sheath. The next level is the level of bliss which is experienced in deep sleep and which is said to be close to the bliss of Brahman.

The body-mind complex is not you and if you wish to know who you are, you have to start analyzing the different levels and try to know what your real self is. This is shown as an episode from the Taittiriya Upanishad.

9.4. Bhrigu’s Episode

The episode talks of a young man called Bhrigu who approaches his father Aruni and asks him to tell the nature of the Supreme reality, which, the scriptures say, is the same as the nature of the living being too. His father tells him – ‘you have the following data, you have a body, you have the life force called prān a, you have the five senses and a mind. You contemplate on these and find out which exactly is your real self’ – tapasā brahma vijijñāsasva – know the truth by contemplation.

This is the procedure adopted in the Upanishads. Everyone has to contemplate and discover the reality for himself.

Bhrigu contemplates on what his father said. His first understanding is that the body is the real self. He then realizes that the body is of little use if there were to be no life force. Even life force is of no use if there were no mind in order to direct the activities of sense organs. Bhrigu then identifies with this mind-self but later realizes that in deep sleep even when the functions of the mind were absent he was very much experiencing the blissful sleep he had, which means that his real self is not even the mind. He thus discards one layer after the other. Vedanta tells about five such layers – the body layer, the life force layer, the mind layer, the ego layer and the layer of bliss in deep sleep.

Bhrigu, by peeling off different layers by such reasoning, realizes that his real self is the principle of existence, consciousness and bliss which is also the nature of Brahman, the Supreme reality.

Vedanta does not talk in terms of individual souls which are created by God and which once created never die and linger on in several places like purgatory. On the other hand, Vedanta says that what is called the individual self, ‘jīva’, is nothing but consciousness which is reflected in the mind. We saw the example of pot space above. The mind, according to Vedanta, is only a reflecting medium. An individual considers his self a jīva, a limited entity, so long as he identifies himself with the body-mind complex. Once he overcomes this identification, he realizes that he is the same as the Supreme Self. The difference is only due to the perception.

Vedanta says that jīva is not only a human being but all living beings. All living beings are by definition, the same as Brahman.

Gita (5: ) says – śuni caiva śvapāke ca panḍitāh samadarśinah . “The wise persons see Brahman everywhere, be it in a learned person, a cow, an elephant, a dog or a dog-eater”. This is the reason why Hinduism does not say that animals are created as a food for man. (It is also the reason why animal sacrifice was only permitted during yajna-s but the general rule was ahimsa, avoiding killing of any animal).

9.5. Does the Self Die?

The so called ‘self’ is like pot space, we saw. Consciousness looks as though limited in the body-mind complex like space in the pot. Consciousness is never created, it exists at all times. Hence, Vedanta says that the jīva is never created, never born and it never dies. There is no birth or death for consciousness (Gita 2-20). Jīva in the form of a living being is only an appearance in consciousness. The gross body is a product of the five elements - earth, air, fire, water and space. Here, Vedanta accepts the religious postulate of rebirth and talks of a subtle body, (the mind, ego, the five senses and the life force). It is this subtle body which transmigrates into a new body when the old body falls off. Such transmigration continues till a person remains ignorant of the nature of his self.

Man gets rid of this subtle body only when he realizes that he is nothing other than the supreme consciousness. It is somewhat like the wave realizing that it is the ocean itself or the pot-space realizing that it is the infinite space. The gross body and subtle body are merely the limiting factors for the consciousness.

Hinduism does not say that a jīva is born with sin. But he has the baggage of his past karma, both good and bad. If there is more good karma to his credit, he would enjoy good things in this life and if he has bad karma pending, he would suffer in this life.

This is not fatalism. It is only a result of fruit of action and a human being has a free will to rectify himself by self purification as told in the scriptures and get on to a higher level.

A human being is not expected to end up at the human level only but he is exhorted to do sādhanā, that is, to undergo spiritual discipline along with contemplation and thus attain the status of Brahman. Vedanta makes an emphatic statement that the knower of Brahman becomes Brahman. This knowledge of Brahman is not an intellectual appreciation of Brahman but undergoing an internal transformation and shedding of his total identity belonging to caste, class, sex and so on and lose his identity in the identity of Brahman.

This can happen in this life itself and not after life. Every human being has the potential to realize the Supreme Being and become that being. This is called jīvan mukti, that is, liberation from the limited self while being alive.

This is not a stage which is the preserve of one class of people like the Vedic scholars or persons of some castes, as it is now misunderstood. This is a spiritual discipline recommended for every human being. Our history and literature abound in examples of such realized persons from every class. It is the highest goal set for a person, as we shall see when we study the human goals.

The parents may see the following YouTube videos

  • Influence of Vedanta on t
  • ‘American Veda’ by Philip Goldberg

Chapter - 10 : Why do We Worship Several Gods

10.1. The Spirit of the Vedas

Vedas postulated the Supreme Reality as infinitely existing consciousness. It is a formless, functionless entity. This is for a serious student. But the ordinary man needs a religion. He needs a god to cry on his shoulder and to pour his requests on him. The Vedic sages did not prescribe or mandate one single god form for the common man, but instead, admitted all existing forms of worship in different parts of the land as valid. To say that only one god form as correct is against the basic principle of Vedas. How then, can they dictate that one form is right and one form is wrong?

Vedas do not dictate so and hence we have different forms of worship.

10.2. A Saint Who Established Six Religions

Can we think of a religious leader who can establish six religions? The idea appears crazy. But what Shankaracharya did in India was just the same. He earned the title ‘the establisher of six religions’ – ṣan mata sthāpakācāryaWe. have to know how it happened.

Shankaracharya was a saint born in Kerala sometime in the early eighth century AD. He wrote commentaries on all the primary texts of Hindus and toured all over the country. It was a practice for the saints (and also for sanyāsi-s, those who renounced their worldly pursuits), to travel all over the land and have scholastic discussions.

The Indian sub-continent had different practices in different parts. Different Gods were worshipped according to local practices. The most prominent Gods were, Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti (in several names such as, Durga, Kali, Ambika), Surya (the Sun God), Vinayaka (also called Ganesh), Murugan, just to mention a few. When Shankaracharya toured all over the country, having discourses with the learned scholars of the day, he noticed several sects and cults all broadly owing allegiance to the Vedas, but no uniformity in worship. There were also certain non-Vedic practices like drunken orgies in grave yards, wearing garlands of skulls etc., in the name of worship. Shankaracharya disapproved such practices and validated six prominent systems which were compatible with the Vedic vision of the Supreme Being.

How did he reconcile all? He chose six popular systems and explained in philosophical terms how the deities of those systems were merely manifestations of the one and the only Supreme Reality. The six deities were Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Ganesha, Murugan, and the Sun. What Shankaracharya did was to harmonize the existing religions and tell people that all the deities should be worshipped with equal regard. Even today we find that except for the hardcore followers of Vishnu or Shiva, all of us go to all temples and show equal regard.

Shankaracharya composed hymns praising all the above deities and brought them under the umbrella of the Upanishadic thought. To a lay devotee, these hymns appear like praises for his favorite deity, but one who is familiar with Vedanta would see that they are referring to the impersonal Brahman. This was one strategy to bring the seeker from a lower level of understanding to the right understanding.

Thus Hinduism as we see now can be understood as a cluster of religious beliefs under the umbrella of Upanishadic thought.

10.3. What Does Gita Say?

The Bhagavad Gita has this to say, which every Hindu has to memorize.

yo yo yām myā tanum bhakta śraddhayārcitumicchati . tasya tasyācalām śraddhām tāmeva vidadhāmyaham ..

(Whoever desires to worship a deity in whatever form, I, the Supreme Reality, will confirm to his devotion in that very form. 7-21)

The Supreme reality is the same for one and all whether one is in Alaska or in Timbuktu. One can worship the Supreme in any form or without any form. All prayers are answered by one and the same deity. We notice certain important points from a study of Gita. The points that can be derived are like this:

Hinduism is a cluster of religious beliefs under the umbrella of the Upanishads. Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shakti worship and so on are all the religions validated by the Upanishads.

  1. At the level of religion it describes God as someone who rewards good and punishes evil, for the common man whereas Vedanta describes it at a different level for the seeker of truth.
  2. Hinduism does not say that one has to worship only one form of deity. There is freedom for the individual to choose his own deity and also worship all deities at a time.
  3. Gita says that people visualize deities according to their own nature and their own desires. Righteous people visualize deities with righteous qualities whereas unrighteous visualize and worship deities for earthly results and for harming others.
  4. Different God forms are tools for meditation and concentration of mind. Meditation on such God forms is prescribed for purification of the mind of the seeker.
  5. Similarly the idol is only a tool which facilitates concentration of mind. It is idea behind the idol which is being contemplated upon, and not the idol as such. It is wrong to assume that we are idol worshippers.
  6. It is wrong to assume that one particular God gives wealth, another gives wisdom and another gives valor. We are invoking the one and only Brahman in different manifestations. It is merely a convention that we worship Ganesha when start of any project, worship Goddess Saraswati when we appear for an examination and so on.
  7. If we closely see the Ganesha Vratam or Saraswati Vratam or any other specific worship relating to a deity, we find that the same deity is worshipped at two levels, one as the Supreme Being and the other as a functional God awarding a particular boon. It depends on the maturity of the worshipper to realize the philosophical view.

10.4. Is the Student of Vedanta an Agnostic?

No. All the above discussion may appear like a non-believer’s version. The fact that Vedanta accepts a personal god as a lower level of reality does not mean that Vedanta is atheistic or agnostic. A student of Vedanta continues to worship the traditionally handed god-form with all the love, in order to achieve purity of thought, to take support of the god to get rid of his weaknesses and bad tendencies. It is also as a matter of duty as prescribed by dharma and to set an example for the unenlightened ones. His worship is not a pretentious act or a condescending act. He uses this as a means to attain self-realization.

10.5. Vaishnavism and Saivism :

Vishnu and Shiva are two prominent deities mentioned in the Vedas and they became more popular than other Vedic deities in different parts of the country. Shiva worship was popular in the north western parts – Kashmir and beyond today’s Afghanistan. Worship of Vishnu was more in some other parts. Kashmir Saivism is a form of monotheism which accepts the above Vedantic thought but calls the Supreme Being as Shiva (instead of Brahman) and gives some attributes and an exclusive abode (Kailasa) of his own. The same was done by the worshippers of Vishnu who treated him as the Supreme Being and gave some attributions to him besides describing his special abode Vaikuntha. Each one has a hierarchy of attendant gods, divine musicians and so on.

Once we understand the above spirit of the Upanishads about Brahman (Consciousness) at the level of Supreme Reality and a functional god at the level of religion (vyāvahārika satyam), we will understand all other forms of worship like Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti (Durga), Ganesa, Sun and so on and have no difficulty in accommodating all of them in that framework. The uniqueness of Hinduism is that it accommodated and harmonized all of them. Hence, these are not being discussed in detail. It is enough to know that each of these forms has developed a theological system in consonance with the Upanishadic thought and treated its own god as the Supreme Brahman. The mythological tales surrounding these schools can be understood accordingly.

10.6. Historical Reasons for Multiple Gods:

  • There appears to be a historical reason too, which we have to note, for the existence of multiple gods. The Indian sages did a peaceful and harmonious integration of different systems and permitted all systems to coexist. This is in sharp contrast with what happened in rest of the world.
  • History shows that when the new religions originated in the West, they wiped out all existing religions with varying degrees of bloodiness by calling them pagan or barbaric. The religious leaders took the help of the kings or emperors and physically eliminated religions like Mithraism (a religion of the Roman Empire). The same happened in the Arabian Peninsula.
  • There is no organizational structure for Hinduism, unlike the western religions. The hierarchical structure in the western world could wield enormous influence on the political system. This did not happen in India as the approach of the sages was to engage in discussions and harmonize traditions. There was no teaming up (like church and the state) with the political power as in the western world.
  • The priestly structure of western religions has consolidated over the ages. There are global structures now. An order can be given by the religious high command and it will be obeyed down the line up to a remote parish in Alaska or a remote village in India. Hinduism has no such structure and hence never had the bargaining power with the political structure.

A Hindu child is occasionally ragged by others when he says that Ganesha with an elephant’s head is a god or when Hanuman, a monkey king is a god. A Hindu parent has to take some additional pain to explain the egalitarian Hindu view to a child so that the child will not fall in self-esteem, thinking that it is from an inferior culture. The child will realize that the Hindu texts are most compatible with science and cosmology and are more open minded. Parents may also be careful not to make their kids argumentative and aggressive about religion.

Parents may suggest the following book to kids:

  • ‘The Story of Mankind’ by Hendrik van Loon (Google search) to see how religions spread by violence.

Part 6 (11 & 12 Chapters) will follow next week.


* Dr. K. Aravinda Rao, IPS, the author of the book “How to Tell Hinduism to your Child?” holds PhD in Sanskrit. He had a distinguished career in Andhra Pradesh holding a number of positions in the safety and security departments. He was appointed as Director General of State Police in 2010 and retired in 2012.  He also worked as the Additional Director General of State Intelligence Department the Additional Commissioner of Police, Hyderabad, Inspector General of Police (Greyhounds) and IGP (Crime Investigation Department).

Global Hindu Heritage Foundation was very happy to receive his permission to share the book to our readers. We will be send two chapters at a time so that it would allow the readers and the students to digest the material before they receive the next set of chapters. “The present book is to give the modern students and parents an appreciation of the statute philosophical inquiry, universal values, and pluralism of Hinduism and enable them to look at their own religion with esteem in the present competitive environment.” Please enjoy reading the book.



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