Nurturing Young Minds

Nurturing Young Minds

Friday, December 24, 2010

Hindu Religion,Spirituality and Service to Humanity

By PK Siddharth
(Text of the speech  delivered on the occasion of World Confluence of Humanity, Power and Spirituality, 2nd -5th Jan, 2010 at Kolkata, India)

There was a man who invented the dynamite. He then became a dealer in explosives and earned a great fortune as a merchant of explosives. He became extremely rich through this trade. His explosives were very effective, and they did what they were expected to do in a large number of countries, abetting bloody battles and wars. The man was very proud of his achievements as an inventor and as a merchant. He thought that his life was very good and successful till one day he asked one of his friends a question: “Tell me how would I be remembered by the posterity?’

“As a merchant of death”, replied his friend.

The man fell from heaven.

In a moment his interpretation of life, universe and self changed. He encountered the moment of truth.

He decided to pool together all his money, and put it in a trust so that the income from its interest would be sufficient to give awards every year to such people as would make a contribution to the preservation and promotion of peace in the world.

Today the award instituted by him inspires thousands of people all over the world to work for peace, and for achievements in sciences, literature and philosophy that would take the humanity farther in its quest for excellence. His name is so honourable today that people feel proud to be associated with his name.

His name was Alfred Nobel, and it is he who instituted the Nobel Prize. Today, most inventors, scientists, economists, writers and social workers find it a matter of pride to be called a Nobel laureate, just because Alfred Nobel dedicated all his wealth to the service of humanity.

Service to humanity is a value that is viewed with approval by nearly every enlightened person, whether he is a theist or an atheist, a believer or a non-believer.

The reasons for turning to service of humanity are different for different people.

Mother Teresa took up service to humanity because she believed in God and thought her service to the poor would endear her to God. There are a vast number of people who render service to humanity in various ways for religious fulfillment and spiritual growth. But today, in the age of reason, there are now a growing number of people all over the world, who do not render human service to please God or to secure for themselves a place in the heaven after death. They do it just because it appeals to their reason that they should plough back into the society what they received from it.  Bill Gates has committed a huge chunk of his personal wealth to the service of humanity. Bill and his wife Melinda keep traveling across continents to find how they and their wealth could be of any service to the suffering humanity anywhere in the world. It does not appear that they have been doing his for – or primarily for - religious reasons. It is perhaps because they like the happiness and profound satisfaction earned through philanthropy.

Therefore, service to humanity is as dear to an enlightened atheist or an agnostic, who does not believe in God, heaven or hell, as it may be to a believer, who either wants to simply win the grace of God, or wishes  to secure for himself an assured place in the heaven. In this article, however, it would be my endeavor to throw some light on the relationship between religion, spirituality and service to humanity, especially as it figures in Hinduism.

There is a clear and strong stream in Hinduism that believes in sanyas as one of the valid and effective ways of attaining God. A sanyasi is one who takes to spiritual practices like Jap, dhyan or meditation and other spiritual kriyas or actions in isolation from ordinary worldly activities. A sanyasi renounces the world and performs only nitya and naimittik karmas or actions like daily ablutions and a selected set of actions that are strictly necessary for spiritual attainment. He shuns all kamya karmas or actions rooted in the worldly domain. Effectively, he is believed to have got a license to do nothing other than his necessary personal cleaning, and mediation, chanting etc., including what we ordinarily think of as human service. He is believed to be able to scale spiritual heights without having to render any service to humanity or the world. It is this notion that Lord Krishna in the BhagawdGita sets out to blast.

Such sanyasi, or renouncer, can be a gyan yogi or a bhakti yogi. ‘Yog’, called ‘yoga’ in English, literally means ‘joining’, ‘adding’ or ‘bonding’ (together). The opposite of ‘yoga’ is ‘viyoga’ or separation. In Hindu philosophy ‘yoga’ signifies a way of life that joins or binds a spiritual aspirant and God together. In other words, ‘yoga’ means a path that leads to attainment of God or Godhood. A person practicing such a way of life is called a ‘yogi’.

The Hindu philosophy recognizes several paths or ‘yogas’ that can lead to attainment of God or Godhood. The three main and well known paths, among so many, are gyan yoga, bhakti yoga and karm yoga. Gyan yoga focuses on contemplation or meditation of God, and is knowledge-oriented, where knowledge does mean worldly knowledge, but knowledge of God and related matters. Bhakti yoga focuses on devotion to God, and is essentially feelings or emotions-oriented, drawing basically on emotions of love and reverence towards God. Karma yoga focuses on actions that pertain to the worldly domain. Though these actions are performed in the worldly domain, which a sanyasi or renouncer would ordinarily shun, the actions are without personal attachment and are dedicated to God. The karma yogis seek to attain God through such detached and dedicated actions.  

It is important to note that not only gyan margis or knowledge-yogis can be sanyasis or renouncers of the world. Even staunch bhakti margis can be sanyasis. The famous bhaktas like Tulasidas, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Sri Ramkrishna Paramhans, Bhaktivedant Swami Prabhupad were all bhakts or bhakti-yogis, and they were all renouncers of the world. They spent all their time chanting the name of God, and reading, writing, thinking and talking about God and His deeds, with little interest in actions pertaining to the worldly domain.

The popular understanding in Hinduism is that the gyan-margis and the sanyasi bhaktas are under no obligation to perform any kamya Karma or worldly actions, which apparently include, among others, service of other humans. This was the point in issue between Swami Vivekananda and the other disciples of Ramkrishna, when Swami Vivekananda set out to set up Ramkrishna Mission for service to humanity in ways other than mere preaching and blessing. Vivekananda’s gurubhayis or co-disciples of Ramkrishna were of the opinion that as sanyasi bhaktas their prime duty was to chant the names of the Mother Goddess with full devotion and to keep remembering her all the time without being interrupted by ‘worldly’ thoughts and actions. It took Swami Viviekanand quite a bit of effort to convince his peers that service to humanity was as much a part of their spiritual quest as bhajan-kirtan and other puja chores.

Not that this was Swami Vivekananda’s own view on spirituality and religion. What he was saying was only a re-affirmation of what is strongly advocated in the main scriptures of Hinduism including the BhagwadGita and the Rmayana – the two principal sources of Hindu religion and spiritual practice. The BhagwadGita is the only religious scripture that deals in great detail with the issue and philosophy of how to attain God through action without renouncing the world.

The idea of Hindu sanyas is put in the right perspective by Sri Krishna, whose BhagwadGita is considered the most authentic commentary on Hinduism. In the Gita he talks about the Sankhya Yogi-Sanyasis hailing them as genuine spiritual aspirants. However, at the end, he clarifies that genuine Sankhya yogis are the ones that work for the welfare of all creatures, and not only the humans – ते प्राप्नुवन्ति मामेव सर्वभूत हिते रताः. those who work for the service of others reach me’. In other words, the path to God lies through service to humanity and the world. In the Ram Charit Manas Lord Ram says – परहित सरिस धर्म नहिं भाई, पर पीरा सम नहीं अधमाई – there is no holy duty or dharma like doing good to others, and nothing worse than doing ill to others’. It is not only thus spake Rama; it is also thus acted Rama. The entire life of Lord Rama is a long drawn act of philanthropy and service to people in spite of being a king.

The Hindu faith, at a certain stage of evolution, came to believe in the varna and ashram order. Not all varnas and all ashramas were needed to do everything, and there was a division of duties. Sanyasis, as explained earlier, were not expected to engage in day-to-day worldly affairs, and were expected to renounce the world. But Lord Krishna clarified in the Gita that none – no ashram or varna – was exempt from these three duties -   tapa (penance), yagna and daan (giving or charity), because these three are universal purifiers, and purify all their practitioners. Sri Krishna gives unusual – better than popular - meanings to tapa and daan, and leaves daan unexplained. How could a poor shudra give daan? How could a poor Brahmin give daan? How could the sanyasi give daan? The import is clear. Daan does not only mean giving of money. Those who do not have surplus money to give must give their time for human improvement, their knowledge or skills (vidya) for human service, treating service to humanity as service to God. Unlike in other faiths or semitik origin, in the Hindu faith and metaphysics, all is God, all humans are God (falsely believing themselves not be God under the spell of maya or delusion), and all creatures are God (वासुदेवः सर्वं इति सः महात्मा सुदुर्लभः – गीता). Therefore service to human beings and to other creatures is literally service to God in Hindusim. Swami Viviekanand was deeply aware of this fact, and therefore he roped in his sanyasi friends for service of humanity in more ways than preaching and blessing. Thus service to humanity and the world is inextricably built into Hinduism at the normative level. If it has failed to percolate to the grassroots from time to time, it is the failure of the religious and spiritual leadership of Hinduism, just as straying of a large number of Islamic groups into terrorism is a failure of Islamic religious leadership and not of Islam as such.

But all said and done, in practice philanthropy and ‘giving’ have so far remained largely an individual affair in Hinduism, and that too at a much less than satisfactory level. Few Hindus, even of the better-off middle class, set apart any money regularly for giving to the poor, and few among us set apart any fraction of our spare time for serving the needy – the aged and the old, the orphans, the poor, or for transmitting our knowledge to the underprivileged children.

The Hindus have also shown little penchant to serve the humanity in an effectively organized manner. Spiritual leaders like Swami Vivekananda were among the first to carry forward this spirit of service to the humanity through an organized mission. Since then many other missions have sprung up under the umbrella of Hinduism. But it is unfortunate that the instances of the Hindu rich coming forward to donate generously for philanthropic causes have not generally been remarkable, barring exceptions. That the Ram Krishna Mission is still not able to expand its chain of schools essentially meant for the underprivileged beyond half a dozen is a sad commentary on Hindu and Indian philanthropic attitude. The Aurobindo mission seems similarly constrained in the matter due to lack of resources.

A more unfortunate part is that the Hindu rich are more prone to making donations for construction of temples, which would serve the interests of gods and deities, than for construction of schools that would serve the interests of the ordinary humans.  Building of skill-development centers that would facilitate livelihood generation and poverty alleviation would attract even less donations from the rich in India. If Krishna was right in asserting that the path to God lay through service to humanity and the world (ते प्राप्नुवन्ति मामेव...), then contributing for setting up schools, hospitals and skill-development centers for livelihood generation for the poor would secure for the donors a better place in the heart of God than donating for creation of temples for gods and deities who are already well-fed and well-looked after. The message of Swami Vivekananda ‘first bread and then religion’ has found very few buyers among the Hindus. The first need of India of today is not religion but bread. The enlightened Swami, while pleading for regeneration of the Indian society and nation without destroying the religions of the masses of India, expressed his ideas on primacy of addressing the issues of hunger and poverty of India in no uncertain terms:

“Material civilization, nay, even luxury, is necessary to create work for the poor. Bread! Bread! I do not believe in a God who cannot give me bread here, giving me eternal bliss in heaven! Pooh! India is to be raised; the poor are to be fed…”

In fact the Hindu view of philanthropy and service to others goes beyond service to mankind. It extends to all creatures – ‘सर्व भूत हिते’. This difference in service ethics arises from certain distinctive ideas in the Hindu metaphysics. The major religions of semitik origin do not officially believe that animals have souls. They also do not believe that a human can ever be born as an animal or a tree. Hinduism on the other hand believes that all forms of life have souls, which can reincarnate themselves as humans, and humans can also take rebirth as animals or trees. Therefore there is a greater commonality between the human and other forms of life, and that service to other forms of life is also important like service to humans. In Hinduism, therefore, it is common to find votaries of go-sewa or service to the cows which were the most common of all animals working or living with the humans. Even harmful animals like snakes are given milk to drink, and a bird of bad omen like the owl is closely associated with the goddess of wealth Lakshmi as her vahan or vehicle, and worshipped.

That service to humanity and karm-yoga is the highest of all paths and yogas was admitted by one of the greatest sanyasi kriya-yogis of modern times – Yoganandji in his book Autobiography of a Yogi, which is one of the most must-read books for all spiritualists and religious aspirants. In the book he has devoted a chapter to Gandhiji who he wanted to teach kriya-yoga. For this he went to the ashram of Gandhiji and stayed there for two days. The sanyasi-yogi has narrated his observations of Gandhiji who was an avowed karm-yogi, and who never lost an opportunity to state that every moment of his life was dedicated to Sri Krishna and Lord Ram through service to the people. For Gandhi, his participation in the political work and constructive program was a spiritual quest, but Swami Yoganand though Gandhi needed spiritual initiation. After staying with him at his ashram the kriya-yogi realized that the karm-yogi he had sought to teach kriya-yoga was at a higher plane that him. So at the time of departure, the sanyasi touched the feet of the person he had sought to make his disciple. After all a true spiritual person and yogi was expected to be truthful, and Yoganandji stood up to spirituality by confessing that Gandhi, a true servant of humanity, was superior to the kriya-yogi sanyasi Yogandand!

The real test of a religion is not found in what is written in its scriptures and books, but in what the majority of its adherents practice in real life. If this litmus test were to be applied to Hinduism of today, it would most likely fail the test as regards philanthropy in practice. The truth has to be accepted and faced boldly. At the same time truth has to be improved and altered through conscious and concerted action of all Hindus. Let us as Hindus commit today that we would spare part of whatever is there surplus with us – money, time, knowledge, skills – for the poor and the underprivileged, of whichever caste and creed, whichever race or religion. 

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