I were asked under what sky the human mind… has most deeply pondered
over the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions to some of
them which well deserve the attention even of those who have studied
Plato and Kant— I should point to India. And if I were to ask myself
from what literature we who have been nurtured almost exclusively on
the thoughts of Greeks and Romans, and of one Semitic race, the
Jewish, may draw the corrective which is most wanted in order to make
our inner life more perfect, more comprehensive, more universal, in
fact more truly human a life… again I should point to India.
(Kindle Locations 375-379)
16, 1945, in the deep privacy of a New Mexico desert, an event occurred
that may prove to be the most important single happening of the twentieth
century. A chain reaction of scientific discoveries that began at the
University of Chicago and centered at “Site Y” at Los Alamos was
culminated. The first atomic bomb was, as we say, a success. No one had
been more instrumental in this achievement than Robert Oppenheimer,
director of the Los Alamos project. An observer who was watching him
closely that morning has given us the following account: “He grew tenser
as the last seconds ticked off. He scarcely breathed. He held on to a post
to steady himself…. When the announcer shouted ‘Now!’ and there came this
tremendous burst of light, followed… by the deep-growling roar of the
explosion, his face relaxed in an expression of tremendous relief.” This
much from the outside. But what flashed through Oppenheimer’s own mind
during those moments, he recalled later, were two lines from the
Bhagavad-Gita in which the speaker is God:
I am become death,
the shatterer of worlds;
Waiting that hour that ripens to their doom.
(Kindle Locations 386-391).
What People Want
were to take Hinduism as a whole— its vast literature, its complicated
rituals, its sprawling folkways, its opulent art— and compress it into a
single affirmation, we would find it saying:
You can have what you want.
(Kindle Locations 403-405)
People, she says, want four things.
They begin by wanting pleasure. To the person who wants pleasure,
India says in effect: Go after it— there is nothing wrong with it; it is
one of the four legitimate ends of life. If pleasure is what you
want, do not suppress the desire. Seek it intelligently.
When this time comes the individual’s interests usually shift to the
second major goal of life, which is worldly success with its three prongs
of wealth, fame, and power.
Hindus locate pleasure and success on the Path of Desire. But what greater
attractions does life afford? Two, say the Hindus. In contrast with the
Path of Desire, they constitute the Path of Renunciation. We must never
forget that Hinduism’s Path of Renunciation comes after the Path of
The question brings us to the two signposts on the Path of Renunciation.
This transfer marks the first great step in religion. It produces the
religion of duty, after pleasure and success the third great aim of life
in the Hindu outlook.
What People Really Want “There comes a time,” Aldous Huxley wrote, “when
one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?” It is
difficult to think of a sentence that identifies Hinduism’ attitude toward
the world more precisely.
To state the full truth, then, we must say that what people would
really like to have is infinite being, infinite knowledge, and infinite
bliss. To gather the wants into a single word, what people
really want is liberation
from the finitude that restricts us from the limitless being,
consciousness, and bliss our hearts desire.
The Beyond Within
aim of life,” Justice Holmes used to say, “is to get as far as possible
from imperfection.” Hinduism says its purpose is to pass beyond
To begin with the strictures on our joy, these fall into three subgroups:
physical pain, frustration that arises from the thwarting of desire, and
boredom with life in general.
pain is the least troublesome of the three.
The second great limitation of human life is ignorance. The Hindus claim
that this, too, is removable. The Upanishads speak of a “knowing of That
the knowledge of which brings knowledge of everything.”
As for life’s third limitation, its restricted being, to profitably
consider this we have first to ask how the boundary of the self is to be
Four Paths to the Goal
Hinduism’s specific directions for actualizing the human potential come
under the heading of yoga. Defined generally, then, yoga is a method of
training designed to lead to integration or union. But integration of
It is enough here to note that her extensive instructions on the subject
comprise an authentic yoga, hatha yoga.
“Since all the Indian spiritual [as distinct from bodily ] exercises are
devoted seriously to this practical aim— not to a merely fanciful
contemplation or discussion of lofty and profound ideas— they may well be
regarded as representing one of the most realistic, matter-of-fact,
practical-minded systems of thought and training ever set up by the human
mind. How to come to Brahman [God in Sanskrit] and remain in touch with
Brahman; how to become identified with Brahman, living out of it; how to
become divine while still on earth— transformed, reborn adamantine while
on the earthly plane; that is the quest that has inspired and deified the
human spirit in India throughout the ages.” Heinrich Zimmer, The
Philosophies of India, 1951. Reprint. ( Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press: 1969), 80– 81.
The spiritual trails that Hindus have blazed toward this goal are four. At
first this may seem surprising. If there is one goal, should there not be
one path to it? This might be the case if we were all starting from the
same point, though even then different modes of transport— walking,
driving, flying— might counsel alternate routes. As it is, people approach
the goal from different directions, so there must be multiple trails to
the common destination.
What is distinctive in Hinduism is the amount of attention it has devoted
to identifying basic spiritual personality types and the disciplines that
are most likely to work for each. The result is a recognition, pervading
the entire religion, that there are multiple paths to God, each calling
for its distinctive mode of travel.
The number of the basic spiritual personality types, by
Hindu count, is four. Some people are primarily reflective. Others are
basically emotional. Still others are essentially active. Finally, some
are experimentally inclined.
The first step of every yoga, therefore, involves the cultivation
of such habits as non-injury, truthfulness, non-stealing, self-control,
cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, and a compelling desire to
reach the goal.
|The Way to God through Knowledge
Jnana yoga, intended for spiritual aspirants who have a strong reflective
bent, is the path to oneness with the Godhead through knowledge. The key
to the project is discrimination, the power to distinguish between the
surface self that crowds the foreground of attention and the larger self
that is out of sight.
The Way to God through Love
The aim of bhakti yoga is to direct toward God the love that lies at the
base of every heart. By and large, life is powered less by reason than by
emotion; and of the many emotions that crowd the human heart, the
strongest is love. In contrast to the way of knowledge, bhakti yoga has
countless followers, being, indeed, the most popular of the four.
All the basic principles of bhakti yoga are richly exemplified in
Christianity. Indeed, from the Hindu point of view, Christianity is one
great brilliantly lit bhakti highway toward God, other paths being not
neglected, but less clearly marked. Being persuaded of God’s otherness,
the bhakta’s goal, too, will differ from the jnani’s. The bhakta will
strive not to identify with God, but to adore God with every element of
his or her being.
The Way to God through Work
The third path toward God, intended for persons of active bent, is karma
yoga, the path to God through work. In short, the entire body, except for
the reproductive apparatus, converges on action. “The human machine,” a
physician writes, “seems indeed to be made for action.” In the language of
the four yogas, karma yoga can be practiced in either mode: jnana
(knowledge), or bhakti (devoted service).
The Way to God through Psychophysical Exercises
Because of the dazzling heights to which it leads, raja yoga has been
known in India as “the royal (raj) road to reintegration.” Designed for
people who are of scientific bent, it is the way to God through
psychophysical experiments. Unlike most experiments in the natural
sciences, those of raja yoga are on one’s self, not external nature. The
purpose of raja yoga is to demonstrate the validity of this fourfold
estimate of the human self by leading the inquirer to direct personal
experience of “the beyond that is within.”
With the hypothesis raja yoga
proposes to test before us,
we are prepared to indicate the eight steps of the experiment itself.
1 and 2. The
first two concern the moral preliminaries with which all four yogas begin.
3. Raja yoga works with the body even while being ultimately concerned
with the mind. More precisely, it works through the body to the mind.
Beyond general health, its chief object here is to keep the body from
distracting the mind while it concentrates. The object of this third step
is to exclude such distractions— to get Brother Ass, as Saint Francis
called his body, properly tethered and out of the way. The Hindu
discoveries for achieving this balance are called asanas, a word usually
translated “postures” but which carries connotations of balance and ease.
4. Yogic postures protect the meditator from disruptions from the body in
its static aspects, but there remain bodily activities, such as breathing.
The yogi must breathe, but untrained breathing can shatter the mind’s
5. Composed, body at ease, its breathing regular, the yogi sits absorbed
6. At last the yogi is alone with his mind. The five steps enumerated thus
far all point to this eventuality; one by one the intrusions of cravings,
a troubled conscience, body, breath, and the senses have been stopped. But
the battle is not yet won; at close quarters it is just beginning. For the
mind’s fiercest antagonist is itself. Alone with itself it still shows not
the slightest inclination to settle down or obey. The mind is like a
drunken crazed monkey with St. Vitus’ Dance who has just been stung by a
7. The last two steps are stages in which this process of concentration
progressively deepens. “The subject and the object are completely merged
so that the self-consciousness of the individual subject has disappeared
altogether.” At that moment we annihilate time and the duration of time;
we are no longer in time, but time, or rather eternity itself, is in us.
8. There remains the final, climactic state for which the Sanskrit word
samadhi should be retained. The distinctive feature of samadhi is that all
of the object’s forms fall away. For forms are limiting boundaries; to be
one form others must be excluded, and what is to be known in raja yoga’s
final stage is without limits.
The Stages of Life
different. Few observations could be more banal, yet serious attention to
it is one of Hinduism’s distinctive features. Not only do individuals
differ from one another; each individual moves through different stages,
each of which calls for its own appropriate conduct.
India marked off as that of the student. The successful student was not to
emerge a walking encyclopedia, a reference library wired for sound. Habits
were to be cultivated, character acquired.
beginning with marriage, was that of the householder. There are three
fronts on which they can play with satisfaction: family, vocation, and the
community to which one belongs. Normally, attention will be divided
between the three. This is the time for satisfying the first three human
wants: pleasure, through marriage and family primarily; success, through
vocation; and duty, through civic participation. Hinduism smiles on the
happy fulfillment of these wants but does not try to prime them when they
begin to ebb.
It follows that succeeding the stages of student and householder, Hinduism
will mark with confidence a
into which life should move. This is the stage of retirement. The time has
come to begin one’s true adult education, to discover who one is and what
life is about.
Beyond retirement, the
wherein the goal is actually reached is the state of the sannyasin,
defined by the Bhagavad-Gita as “one who neither hates nor loves
anything.” To find meaning in the mystery of existence is life’s final and
fascinating challenge. But though the sannyasin is back, he is back as a
different person. Having discovered that complete release from every
limitation is synonymous with absolute anonymity, the sannyasin has
learned the art of keeping the finite self dispersed lest it eclipse the
infinite. The sannyasin saints of Jainism, an offshoot of Hinduism, went
about “clothed in space,” stark naked. Buddhism, another offshoot, dressed
its counterparts in ochre, the color worn by criminals ejected from
society and condemned to death.
The Stations of Life
This brings us to
the Hindu concept of caste. On no other score is Hinduism better known or
more roundly denounced by the outside world. Caste contains both point and
perversion. In any event the outcome was a society that was divided into
seers, administrators, producers, and
us record at once the perversions that entered in time, however they
originated. To begin with, a fifth group— of outcastes or untouchables—
appeared. Even in speaking of this category there are mitigating points to
be remembered. What is called for here is recognition that with respect to
the ways they can best contribute to society and develop their own
potentialities, people fall into four groups.
(1) The first group India called
or seers. Reflective, with a passion to understand and a keen intuitive
grasp of the values that matter most in human life, these are
civilization’s intellectual and spiritual leaders.
(2) The second group, the
are born administrators, 24 with a genius for orchestrating people and
projects in ways that makes the most of available human talents.
(3) Others find their vocation as producers; they are artisans and
farmers, skillful in creating the material things on which life depends.
These are the
can be characterized as followers or servants.
“Thou Before Whom All
prayer of Shankara, the Thomas Aquinas of Hinduism, begins with the
invocation, “Oh Thou, before whom all words recoil.” The problem is
not that our minds are not bright enough. The problem lies deeper. Minds,
taken in their ordinary, surface sense, are the wrong kind of instrument
for the undertaking.
The human mind has evolved to facilitate survival in the natural world. It
is adapted to deal with finite objects. God, on the contrary, is infinite
and of a completely different order of being from what our minds can
grasp. To expect our minds to corner the infinite is like asking a dog to
understand Einstein’s equation with its nose.
The only literally accurate description of the Unsearchable of which the
ordinary mind is capable is
neti… neti, not this… not this.
If you traverse the length and breadth of the universe saying of
everything you can see and conceive, “not this… not this,” what remains
will be God. We may begin simply with a name to hang our thoughts on. The
name the Hindus give to the supreme reality is
The chief attributes to be linked with the name are
sat, chit, and
ananda; God is
being, awareness, and bliss. Utter reality, utter consciousness, and
utterly beyond all possibility of frustration— this is the basic Hindu
view of God.
In Spinoza’s formulation God’s nature resembles our words about as much as
the dog star resembles a dog.
God so conceived is called Saguna Brahman, or God-with-attributes as
distinct from the philosophers’ more abstract Nirguna Brahman, or
God-without-attributes. Nirguna Brahman is the ocean without a ripple;
Saguna Brahman the same ocean alive with swells and waves. In the language
of theology, the distinction is between personal and transpersonal
conceptions of God.
Hinduism has included superb champions of each view, notably Shankara for
the transpersonal and Ramanuja for the personal; but the conclusion that
does most justice to Hinduism as a whole and has its own explicit
champions like Sri Ramakrishna is that both are equally correct.
Conceived in personal terms, God will stand in relation to the world as an
artist to his or her handiwork. God will be Creator (Brahma),
and Destroyer (Shiva),
who in the end resolves all finite forms back into the primordial nature
from which they sprang.
Coming of Age in the Universe
implies a lawful world, it has often been interpreted as fatalism. However
often Hindus may have succumbed to this interpretation, it is untrue to
the doctrine itself. Karma decrees that every decision must have its
determinate consequences, but the decisions themselves are, in the last
analysis, freely arrived at.
The World— Welcome
If we ask about
the world’s metaphysical status, we shall have to continue the distinction
we have watched divide Hinduism on every major issue thus far; namely, the
one between the dual and the non-dual points of view. On the conduct of
life this distinction divides jnana yoga from bhakti yoga; on the doctrine
of God it divides the personal from the transpersonal view; on the issue
of salvation it divides those who anticipate merging with God from those
who aspire to God’s company in the beatific vision.
Many Paths to the Same Summit
That Hinduism has
shared her land for centuries with Jains, Buddhists, Parsees, Muslims,
Sikhs, and Christians may help explain a final idea that comes out more
clearly through her than through the other great religions; namely, her
conviction that the various major religions are alternate paths to the
Early on, the Vedas announced Hinduism’s classic contention that the
various religions are but different languages through which God speaks to
the human heart.
|Appendix on Sikhism
Hindus are inclined to regard Sikhs (literally disciples) as somewhat
wayward members of their own extended family, but Sikhs reject this
reading. They see their faith as having issued from an original divine
revelation that inaugurated a new religion. Nanak, pious and reflective
from his birth in 1469, around the year 1500 mysteriously disappeared
while bathing in a river. On reappearing three days later he said: “Since
there is neither Hindu nor Muslim, whose path shall I follow? I will
follow God’s path. God is neither Hindu nor Muslim, and the path I follow
Sikhism’s homeland is the Punjab, “the land of the five rivers” in
northwest India, where Muslim invaders were in firm control. Nanak valued
his Hindu heritage while also recognizing the nobility of Islam. Here were
two religions, each in itself inspired, but which in collision were
exciting hatred and slaughter.
This relatively even division between Hindu and Muslim doctrines has led
outsiders to suspect that in his deep, intuitive mind, if not consciously,
Nanak worked out a faith he hoped might resolve the conflict religion had
produced in his region.
World renunciation does not figure in this faith. The Sikhs have no
tradition of renunciation, asceticism, celibacy, or mendicancy. They are
householders who support their families with their earnings and donate
one-tenth of their income to charity.