The thing with Hinduism is that it is possibly the religion that most insults the intelligence of its novice adherents, and most gratifies the intelligence of the learned. The introduction to this chaotic religion is through a sequence of many-headed, many-armed, fabulous deities, with questionable morals and unbelievable back-stories, coupled with apparently meaningless festivals and rituals. For a very long time, all of this completely destroyed any enthusiasm that I may have had to go to temples, observe religious festivals, or even pray to a God in my own house.
In the last two weeks of Gita class, Swami Paramathananda has been trying to give us a deeper understanding of how the concept of “God” fits into the Hindu religion, while trying to syncretize the ‘high’ philosophy of Adi Sankara with the ‘low’ religion of the unwashed masses.
Modern Hinduism (at least in the Smartha and Vaishnavite traditions) is unbendingly monotheistic. In addition to proclaiming that there is only one God, it also asserts that this God is beyond the understanding of most human beings, and is formless, shapeless, and beyond the experiences of our mortal senses. In this regard, the Hindu God is not very different from Allah or Jehovah.
So where does the panoply of Hindu gods and goddesses fit within this uncompromisingly monotheistic philosophy? The answer is rather interesting.
In addition to the philosophical aspect of Hinduism, the religion also has a very strong prescriptive ethical directive. In other words, there are a few goals that every Hindu is expected to aspire to. The ultimate goal is jnana – what is traditionally called ‘enlightenment’. A person in the state of jnana (called a jnani) ‘knows’ God. (We shall leave this knowledge undefined for the time being, as I do not myself have a very clear understanding of it.) However, the pursuit of jnana (known as jnana yoga), though possible for all human beings, is fraught with difficulties and distractions. Therefore, Hinduism prescribes a series of exercises that prepare the mind for the pursuit of jnana. These exercises are expected to be performed in parallel with a normal, domestic, social life. Foremost amongst these exercises is karma yoga – the knowledge of how to work. And the crux of karma yoga is renunciation of the fruit of action: we must train ourselves to derive happiness from the performance of various activities while not allowing the success or failure of those activities to affect us.
Now, karma yoga is itself fiendishly difficult to achieve. Even though it is applicable to every part of life – profession, study, family, relationships, the accumulation of wealth, and participation to society – and therefore praticable throughout our waking hours, it requires a great deal of mental strength and discipline to work without worrying about results. Nonetheless, it is the first of Hinduism’s spiritual milestones, and is achieved by a great many people; I myself have at least one very close friend whom I would call a karma yogi - whose enthusiasm for his activities is uniform and full, regardless of whether it results in success or failure.
Since karma yoga itself is so difficult to achieve, Hinduism further prescribes a number of ‘baby steps’ to achieve it. These steps include the unhesitating and incessant performance of a number of ‘duties’: duties to one’s family, one’s teacher, one’s ancestors, one’s spiritual education, to society, and to the environment. It also prescribes the cultivation of certain qualities, such as humility, hard work, and thoughtful action.
It is in the performance of these duties and the cultivation of these qualities that the ‘typical’ Hindu Gods – Krishna, Rama, Durga, Shiva etc. – plays a part. Most Hindus choose one of these Gods as a receptacle for their faith and worship. This ‘personal deity’ is called the ishta devata and each individual is encouraged to have one. We have an incredible variety of ishta devatas to choose from; man, woman, hermaphrodite; human, animal, semi-human; dark-skinned, light-skinned; a variety of super-powers: it is almost like creating a character in an RPG! (Swami Paramarthananda, in his inimitable fashion, called this Hinduism’s “mall of deities”.)
The ishta devatha plays the role of an imaginary friend in Hindu daily life. As you go about the ups and downs of life, and as various temptations and distractions appear to obstruct our cultivation of the Hindu qualities and performance of the Hindu duties, it is convenient to believe in a personal God, to worship in the shrine of that God, to ask him for favours, and to take him to task for unfulfilled wishes. Swamiji says that if you assiduously cultivate an ishta devata, you will never have to fear the specter of loneliness or unconventionality from your duties and your ethics. This will eventually help you in your karma yoga, which, when achieved, is the springboard for jnana yoga and moksha.