Hinduism Hot and Cool

A moment ago we heard what is one of the most famous stories coming from the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads—and that word, “Upanishad,” in the original Sanskrit literally means “sitting near a teacher to receive instruction.” This is exactly what we see with Svetaketu (shway-ta-kay-too), as he learns from his father. Svetaketu has just returned home, after many years at school reading the ancient Vedas and learning the prayers and rituals of the priests. College boy. But now he comes home, and his father sees that his college boy still does not know the most important thing of all. So he teaches him, says, “although your eyes do not help you see God, yet there are other ways you may use to find out whether or not God is. God, like the salt, is everywhere—here, there, and far off. As the salt is hidden in the water, so is God hidden in all the world. God is spirit, as you yourself are spirit. God is hidden in you, my son. God is you, and you are part of God” Tat tvam asi.

Now fast forward 2500 years, to the 1500s. Listen to the words of the Hindu mystic Mirabai, as she communicates her sense of God. Two short poems:

I can’t forget about love
for more than two seconds.
I get dizzy if I think about anything
but the way you pant
in my ear.

Here’s the second poem:

He left His fingerprints on a glass
the earth drinks from.
Every religion has studied it.
Churches and temples use the geometry of those lines
to establish rites and laws and prayers
and our ideas of the universe.
I guess there is just no telling how out of hand—
and wonderfully wild—
things will get
when our lips catch up to His.

In short, something has happened in the 2500 year period between the teaching of the Upanishads and Mirabai’s mystic poetry. Both affirm God, but do so in very different ways. Svetaketu in the ancient story learns about a God that seems impersonal, and he’s challenged to shift his sense of ultimate identity from surface ego to deep soul. Mirabai, on the other hand, is in love. God, for her, takes the form of Krishna, and Krishna is an intensely personal presence who pants in her ear. What she’s challenged to do is not think about anything else—never to forget about this love. Her focus—so different from the austerity that Svetaketu is taught—is to catch up to Krishna’s lips, and when this happens, watch out! Things are gonna get out of hand, things are gonna get wonderfully wild.

One path to God is cool, another is hot. And this is what I want to talk about today: an important variety of diversity within the amazing world religion of Hinduism: Philosophical Hinduism, on the one hand, and Devotional Hinduism, on the other. We’re going to take a look at the history of this and also explore how it might illuminate some aspects of our own diversity as Unitarian Universalists. That’s our goal for today.

So we begin with Philosophical Hinduism, and scholars tell us that this tradition builds on something very different: a previous layer of Vedic religion. From this layer comes Hinduism’s core scriptures, the Vedas; and here also is the source of an insight about the basic problem of life: chaos. Religion scholar Stephen Prothero describes it as follows: “Demons of chaos are always arrayed in a pitched battle with the gods, so family, community, and cosmos alike are forever collapsing into disarray. The aim is to create and sustain social and cosmic order … but this cannot be accomplished by humans alone. So the priests turn to the gods through ritual, and especially through the fire sacrifice, the central preoccupation of the Vedas.” Remember from today’s story, how Svetaketu goes to college? He was probably studying these Vedic rituals—learning how to do the fire sacrifice just right, which essentially involves feeding the gods with animals, milk, grains, and other plants, so that the gods, in turn, feed the world and feed humanity by ensuring the cycle of the seasons, fertility of harvest and children, victory in war. Without this, there is chaos. Religion, in this second layer of Hinduism, was the glue that literally kept everything together.

But around 800 B.C., and for the next several hundred years, civilization in India would begin to see a dramatic shift. And not just in India—around the world. Says scholar Karen Armstrong, around the world “[s]ociety had grown much more aggressive. Iron had been discovered, and this was the beginning of the Iron Age. Better weapons had been invented, and while those weapons look puny compared to what we’re dealing with now, it was still a shock.” Karen Armstrong continues: “As a result of urbanization and a new market economy, people were no longer living on lonely hilltops but in a thriving, aggressive, commercial economy. Power was shifting from king and priest, palace and temple to the marketplace. Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of change accelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behavior could affect the fate of future generations.” That’s Karen Armstrong, and her last point is crucial. All these cultural changes, happening simultaneously in different parts of the world, led to a worldwide emergence of individualism. People started to become conscious of themselves, curious about who they were as individuals, curious about their nature and destiny, committed to personal and spiritual growth as a means to bringing more love and justice into the world. So, during this period in history, roughly 800-200 B.C., we witness the emergence of religious and philosophical traditions which continue to impact us today: the Philosophical tradition in Hinduism, the Therevadan tradition in Buddhism (which was the one I emphasized in my sermon last month), Socrates and Plato in philosophy, the Hebrew prophets, Confucius and Lao Tzu. The era was and is pivotal; so it is no wonder scholars call it the Axial Age. The age around which everything revolves. It changed us forever.

For young Svetaketu, in India, the change began when his father taught him something about himself that he had never heard before. He wouldn’t have, when the focus at the school he went to and trained at for many years was the fire sacrifice and its power in creating social and cosmic order. But the times were changing. Svetaketu’s father understood that. He saw—and by this I mean the writers of the Upanishads, who essentially gave birth to Philosophical Hinduism, saw—that the problem of life wasn’t so much chaos as it was ignorance. People ignorant of who they really are. Cut through the ignorance with wisdom, though, and people transform. So the father teaches his son. God is like salt, in everything, and in people too. A person’s soul—Atman—is identical to the soul of the world—Brahman. If people can directly and experientially know this, they will bless the world. Many years later, a Hindu saint named Tukaram would put it this way, in the form of a short poem:

I could not lie anymore so I started to call my dog “God.”
First he looked confused,
then he started smiling, then he even danced.
I kept at it: now he doesn’t even bite.
I am wondering if this might work on people?

Philosophical Hinduism bets that it will.

Now earlier, I mentioned that Philosophical Hinduism is a cool path to God. Let me say a few words about this, before we turn to Devotional Hinduism, which is hot.

Originally, Philosophical Hinduism was taught by ascetics; for them, release from ignorance required a severe full-time renunciation from various aims of life: renunciation from pleasure, renunciation from wealth, renunciation from power, renunciation from family and relationships and sex and work and civic duty. So that’s what they do, and literally, marriages are legally terminated; renouncers no longer answer to their birth names; they abandon their possessions; family mourn them as if they had actually died. Extreme! But here’s why: for the teachers of Philosophical Hinduism, ignorance wasn’t simply a matter of low IQ, of not knowing important names and dates and facts and theories. It was, rather, a state of being like kings who, having fallen victim to amnesia, wander their kingdoms in tatters not knowing who they really are. And when the Philosophical Hindu says “wandering,” he or she is thinking of “samsara,” which is a condition of endless birth and death and rebirth—reincarnation. Eternal souls wandering from life to life to life … and the irony is that over the course of lifetimes, we naturally find ourselves becoming more and more dissatisfied, since we drink from pleasure fully and find that it does not last, we drink from wealth, we drink from power, we drink from doing our duty—we do all this over the course of lifetimes, and eventually we find ourselves saying, Is that all there is? Of course: because God is within us, and God is infinite being, infinite knowledge, infinite bliss; the more lifetimes we live, the more we become aware of God’s thirst for infinity in us and through us. But as this is happening, which is wonderful, there is a countermovement, which is horrible. The more lifetimes we live, the more we wander, the more entangled we become in the world that is becoming increasingly shallow and trivial to us. The cause is “karma”—the moral law of cause and effect. Karma dictates that for every hurt we caused, we must compensate with a healing, which means that over time we are bound more and more tightly to the world, where we must pay every debt. This is what the original Philosophical Hindus believed. That’s why the only way out, for them, is to stop playing the game. Renunciation from acting in the world and thus creating even more karma. Renunciation for the purpose of bringing our slowly growing sense of God into full bloom, full birth, until we know it directly and absolutely: Tat tvam asi: Thou art That. What results is like that moment in The Matrix, when Neo realizes who he truly is, and the walls start to wobble, and everything slows down….

To this end—to the end of liberation—Philosophical Hindus die to their surface egos and to the world. They go homeless; they are celibate; they beg for food. They meditate in various ways so as to enter fully into the insight that Svetaketu was being taught. God, for them, is something completely beyond knowing—infinite—so they renounce specific images of God. God is also impersonal, like salt dissolved in everything, so talking about a relationship to God makes no sense, and neither does praying to God for help, or relying on God’s grace to break through ignorance. In other words, even though Philosophical Hinduism is staunchly theistic in belief, in practice it is atheistic. It’s a fundamentally self-help way. Help’s not coming from anyplace else. Got to do it yourself. DIY.

That’s what it means when I say Philosophical Hinduism is a cool path to God. Not in the sense of “c-o-o-l” (as in the way the Fonz would say it), but in the sense of introversion, of calm focus, of almost a minimalism of the spirit.

So very different from the sensibility of a Mirabai, who sings

I can’t forget about love
for more than two seconds.
I get dizzy if I think about anything
but the way you pant
in my ear.

In another poem she says,

The earth looked at Him [Krishna] and began to dance.
Mira knows why, for her soul too is in love.
If you cannot picture God
in a way that always strengthens you
you need to read more of my poems

Here, the contrast is stark. Here is heat. Here is a version of Hindu spirituality where one’s ability to cut through self-ignorance depends upon how intensely you relate to God in personal terms. And you don’t have to renounce the world to do this. You can be in the world and love God at the same time. Love cuts through the bonds of karma; love is the way to ultimate release, or “moksha”—love is what gets a person to that Matrix moment, when the walls wobble, and everything slows down, and you finally realize who you truly are.

This is Devotional Hinduism, and it started to emerge around the time of Jesus. First century. Scholar Stephen Prothero describes it as a popular reaction to the elitism of Philosophical Hinduism. “Historically,” he says, “most renouncers have come from the upper castes, and almost all have been men. But what about the rest of us?” What about the rest of us who don’t have the privilege or opportunity to pursue spiritual growth full-time? What about the rest of us who want to keep our families and friends and continue to enjoy the blessings of this world? What about that?

And so, with Devotional Hinduism, the quest for God-realization takes a very different turn. From minimalism of the spirit, we turn to an explosion of energy and form. Abstract philosophy gives way to dramatic stories like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, epics that, for Hindus, are billed as The Greatest Story Ever Told. From the Mahabharata in particular we get the Bhagavad-Gita, which since the nineteenth century has functioned as something like a Hindu New Testament. The influence on Hinduism of Devotionalism simply cannot be underestimated. Of renouncers today, there are just a few million. Of those who practice Devotionalism, we’re talking close to a billion. Both traditions have worked to produce saints and sages. Both are proven by results. But Devotionalism is the clear winner if we’re talking growth strategy. (Unitarian Universalists, if you have ears, hear this.)

Besides affirming that people don’t have to be full-time renouncers of the world in order to connect with God, Devotionalism also affirms that it’s a good thing to picture God in many different ways. For Philosophical Hinduism, God is beyond all human knowing; every image and symbol falls short, so why go there? But Devotionalism understands that you can’t fall in love with something remote and abstract. Images and symbols may be imperfect, yes, but they still disclose something important about God, so let’s use that. Choose an image of God that inspires love in you; and it’s OK if another person’s image is different. That’s fine. What matters is that love is inspired. What matters is never forgetting about one’s love for God—and God’s love for us—even for two seconds. Not even that.

One more thing we need to know about Devotionalism is this: that it affirms the reality of grace. Huston Smith says rightly that one of the questions which has always divided people is whether the universe is friendly or not friendly—indifferent, or maybe even hostile. Whereas Philosophical Hinduism says that it is indifferent, and one must work out one’s release from ignorance by oneself, Devotional Hinduism disagrees, and says that God is a personal God who grants us help and strength as we ask it for it. Chanting the Lord’s name, or pilgrimages to sacred sites, or observing sacred festivals (like Diwali, going on right now), or food offerings to your chosen deity, are all examples of ways of inviting grace into one’s life. People are just not alone in the universe, and the path to awakening is just not a grim grit-your-teeth and do it yourself endeavor. Help is abundantly ours for the asking, from spiritual beings wiser than ourselves. The way is love.

And that’s a little bit on Hinduism—two traditions of this great world religion, about which we could go on for years. But for us, now, I want you to see some of the themes that have been building over the past several minutes: First: where people go to connect with the sacred: either withdrawal from the world, of going into the world even more deeply than before. Second: the source of ultimate hope: either oneself alone, and the Spark of the Divine within; or oneself in the context of a network of relationships spanning outwards—nature, family, friends, society, spiritual beings. Third: the source of ultimate wisdom: either the abstract reaches of philosophy, theology, and theoretical science; or stories, poems, songs, popular culture, a picture of Jesus or Buddha or Krishna on your home altar. Fourth: the value of images of sacred reality: either rejecting them as fatally misleading and taking a strictly agnostic approach, or taking them seriously without taking them literally, understanding that their truth is partial, yes, but still a part of truth, still a bridge into the Mystery. Fifth and finally: styles of religious practice: either calm and stately and meditative so as to enter into transformative clarity; or revival, laughter and tears, energy so as to enter into a transformative heart space of love. All of these themes and different ways of answering them are alive for us today as Unitarian Universalists, too, because, like our Hindu cousins, we share fully in the human condition.

So here is my question for you this morning: how do YOU answer these themes? Where do you go to connect with the sacred? What is the source of ultimate hope for you? Or the source of ultimate wisdom? How do you value images of sacred reality? What’s your style of religious practice? Are your answers cool or hot; hot or cool? More like Svetaketu’s or Mirabai’s More Philosophical or Devotional?

Whichever emphasis is yours, there’s a place for you here, and in this we follow Hinduism’s inspiring capacity to affirm diversity. Sometimes it’s not easy. Sometimes it’s really hard. Take something as small as clapping in services, for example: the cool style doesn’t like it because it takes away from the calm and focus that feels like genuine spirituality to them; whereas the hot style likes it because adds to the energy and joy that feels like genuine spirituality to them. How do we solve this disagreement, and honor both sides?

Perhaps the place to begin is in affirming what the great Sri Ramakrishna once said:

As one can ascend to the top of a house
By means of a ladder or a bamboo
Or a staircase or a rope,
So diverse are the ways and means to approach God,
And every religion in the world shows one of these ways.
Bow down and worship where others kneel….

It does not mean we will always agree, but let there always be reverence and respect and willingness to compromise, as we journey together. Bow down and worship where others kneel.