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FAQ.001 - What is Dharma?

 A.001 - Dharma is the foundational framework within which a Hindu householder (as opposed to a Hindu renunciant) operates. The root of the word is dhr, “that which upholds, or maintains.” That is, actions which help nurture or sustain well-being, auspiciousness, order, physical and ritual purity, social stability, and the harmonious functioning of society. But dharma is more than morality, law, or social convention. It is the human social expression of the cosmic law (rita), the order that runs through all things. While the specific expression of dharma is subject to the conditions of time and place, the foundational assumption—that human action should be harmonious with the rhythm and flow of the cosmic order—is considered to be universal. Thus the recognition of the networks of interrelationships between human actions and the unfolding of human destiny is a key insight of dharma. No one is an island unto him/herself. Rights are balanced by responsibilities, and obligations by corresponding privileges.

Sources of Dharma

The Dharma-Sutras proclaim that the source of dharma is primarily the Veda, but also tradition, the example of learned, righteous and cultured persons, and a recognized legal assembly [Gautama Dharmasutra 1.1, 2, Apastamba Dharma Sutra 2.13.7-9; Baudhayana Dharmasutra 1.5]. Moreover, regional differences and the customs of various countries are to be taken into account [BD 2.1-17]. Historically, dharma was categorized according to sadharana-dharma, action that pertained to all, and vishesha-dharma, the particular duties of individuals.

Sadharana and Vishesha Dharma

Sadharana-dharma enjoins individuals to act in ways commensurate with non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), purity (shauca), and sensorial restraint, is considered universally valid, whereas vishesha-dharma is context-specific. As the Manu Smriti (1.85; 1.110) reminds us, the duty specific to an individual (svadharma, or one’s own dharma), varies not only with stage of life, but with caste (jati), family (kula), and country or region (desa). Sadharana-dharma, on the other hand, is not subject to such conditions and mirrors the ethical values that Indian renouncer systems and meditative schools recommend as essential qualities for the spiritual path.

Vishesha-dharma was further classified as a) varnashrama dharma which regulated action based on one’s affiliation to one of the four social groups of vedic society, gender, and stage of life; b) stridharma, the duties specific to a woman, whose fulfillment of social, familial, and ritual obligations brought forth relational and societal harmony, and familial auspiciousness; c) rajadharma, the duties incumbent on, and the characteristics expected of, kings, who were expected to manifest dharma through just rule and, d) yatidharma, which governed the life of an ascetic, or renunciant.

Textual Authority for Dharma

The ultimate authority for dharma is the Vedas which is sruti, or revelation; secondary textual authority lies in the smriti, or tradition, including the Kalpa Sutras (800 – 400 B.C.E.); the Dharma Shastras (200 B.C.E. – 500 C.E); the ithihasa, the Ramayana (500 B.C.E.) and Mahabharata (compiled from 400 B.C.E. – 400 C.E.); and the Puranas. The Kalpa Sutras are of three types: a) the Srauta Sutras, which are highly technical manuals for the performance of public vedic rites, which are more complex and involved than domestic rites; b) the Grihya Sutras, which deal with the correct performance of yajna, to be performed in the home, rules for ritual purity, and for rites of passage (all of which are part of naimittika-karma); c) the Dharma Sutras, which are concerned with ethical behavior and responsible action, emphasize codes of conduct, conventions of jurisprudence, and the rules comprising the societal framework of the four stages of life (ashrama). Later, the Dharma Shastras, important components of the smriti literature, further elaborate on the subject matter covered by the Dharma Sutras. The best known texts of the Dharma Shastras are the Manu Smriti, the Yajnavalkya Smriti, and the Narada Smriti.

-- Dr. Rita Dasgupta Sherma, Chair, BDVS, DANAM

FAQ.002 - Does Hinduism constitute an Area of Knowledge (AOK) or a Way of Knowing (WOK)?

A.002 - The answer to the question depends on the way we construe the word Hinduism, or, more accurately, the way it is studied. The study of religion can be carried out in two ways: (1) as a study about it, and (2) as a study of it. When we study a religion in a university or high school class on Theory of Knowledge, we study about it: we study about its history, its doctrines, its practices, and so on, without the implication of either being a believer or a follower of it. When, however, a Christian studies Christianity in a seminary, or a Muslim studies Islam in a madarasah, he or she is engaged in a study of Christianity or Islam, as distinguished from a study about it.

Hinduism constitutes an Area of Knowledge in the first sense of study (that is, study about) and a Way of Knowing in the second sense of study (that is, study of .)

–Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM.

FAQ.003 - Are there Ways of Knowing (WOKs) in Hinduism?

A.003 - Yes, there are six Ways of Knowing (WOKs) acknowledged within Hinduism, which may also overlap with Ways of Knowing found in other religions and in secular culture.

Hindu philosophy is so concerned with Ways of Knowing (WOKs) that this issue has been debated through its history going back a millennium. Many different schools of thought have taken different positions on this point. There is even a Hindu tradition of classifying six (6) Hindu Schools of Philosophy (called ‘Darshana-s’) in terms of the WOKs admitted by them, which is even alluded to in a popular Tamil literary classic, Manimekhalai by Chattanaar (circa 500 CE. )

Western philosophy generally recognizes perception (or empiricism) and inference (or rationalism) as the two main WOKs. The Non-orthodox Schools of Indian Philosophy (Lokaayata or Chervaaka, Buddhism, Jainism) and the six Orthodox Hindu Schools of Philosophy (Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaaya, Mimaansa-Praashaara version and -Bhaata version, Advaita Vedanta), each accepts one or more of the six WOKs as follows:

(1) One Non-orthodox school, Lokaayata or Charvaaka, accepts only perception (‘pratyaksha’) as a WOK.

(2) An Orthodox school, Vaisheshika in some of its forms, accepts perception (‘pratyaksha’) as well as inference (‘anumaan’) as WOKs. The position is shared by Buddhism, which is one of the three Non-Orthodox Schools of Philosophy

(3) A second Orthodox school, Samkhya, additionally accepts verbal testimony (‘shabda’) as a WOK. A third school, Yoga, is similar to Samkya in this respect;

(4) A fourth school, Nyaaya, also accepts comparison (‘upmaana’) as another WOK, in addition to the previous three WOKs. An example to illustrate this WOK is in the statement: “A mule is like a horse. From this, we gain the knowledge that the horse looks like the mule.”

(5) For various reasons, the fifth school, the Mimaansaa, in its Praabhaakara version, accepts postulation (‘arthaapatti’) as yet another additional WOK, in addition to the previous four; and in its Bhaatta school version, accepts also a sixth WOK called non-cognition (‘anupalabdhi’), treating the absence of knowledge also a form of knowledge (that of its absence.). The latter accepts all six WOKs. An example of postulation is as follows: One does not eat during the day, and yet continues to put on weight, then it can be surmised that he/ she must be eating during the night when every one is not awake.

(6) The sixth school, Advaita Vedanta, accepts all the six WOKs. (Here ‘Advaita’ means Non-dual.)

The latter six schools constitute the Six Orthodox Schools of Philosophy (‘Darshana-s’)

The Way of Knowing of special interest accepted in Hinduism is ‘shabda’, or verbal testimony, which is not accorded this status in other philosophical systems. That Hinduism should admit a plurality of WOKs and debate all of them is typical of Hinduism.

Source: D. M. Datta, Six Ways of Knowing (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1932)

–Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

DANAM lists the six Ways of Knowing (WOKs) and Schools of Philosophy (‘Darshana-s’) in Hinduism (Hindu Dharma) in the following Table A.003-1.

FAQ.004 - ​Is the doctrine of Karma a kind or form of Fatalism?

A.004 - According to the doctrine of Karma, actions performed by us in the past, especially past lives, have a bearing on, and sometimes even determine, outcomes in the present. This sometimes generates the impression that the doctrine of Karma is Fatalistic.

Fatalism involves the belief that (1) whatever happens to us is predetermined, and further that (2) it is predetermined by Fate (and not by us.) The doctrine of Karma does not support either of these propositions.

According to the standard doctrine of Karma, our past actions are only one of the factors involved in determining the outcomes in the present. The doctrine of Karma classifies Karma into three categories:

(1) Sanchita Karma, or the sum-total of our past Karmas;

(2) Praarabdha Karma, or that part of this sum-total of our past Karma which accounts for our present birth; and(3) Aagaami or Kriyamaana Karma, or the actions we are going to perform on our initiative (that is, on our own free will or choice) in the present or future.

It is clear, therefore, that both past and present karma have a bearing on outcomes in the present, not just the past. Only if past karma alone were to determine outcomes could the system be called deterministic. Moreover, whatever we experience in the present as destined is only a consequence of acts performed by us (and no one else) in the past. It is not the result of some entity called Fate. Even when anything is predetermined in the Hindu scheme of Karma, it is self-determined (and not determined by Fate or Kismet.)

A third factor which prevents the doctrine of Karma from being deterministic is the fluid nature of the three kinds of Karma. Example: when one smokes for the first time, it is the present or Kriyamaana Karma; as one keeps on smoking, it goes on becoming Sanchita or a cumulative Karma; and when one finally gets cancer, it has become Praarabdha or Destiny.

–Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal,Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.005 - ​What is Pramaana and why is it important?

A.005 - The word Pramaana is used in three distinct but allied senses in Hinduism: (1) as a source of knowledge; (2) as a means of knowledge; and, (3) as a test of knowledge. An example might help illustrate the semantic distinctions and their interconnection. It is provided by the act of drawing water from a well using a bucket. The well is the source of the water, the bucket is a means of drawing the water, and once the water is drawn, one tests whether it is potable or not. Water obviously stands for knowledge in this example.

The most usual sense in which Pramaana is used is as a means of knowledge or Way of Knowing (WOK), especially in the sense of valid knowledge: as a valid means of knowledge.

The doctrine of Pramaana is important because it implies a distinction between what is known on the basis of an impression, something known in an unexamined way (‘PraSiddha’), from what is known on the basis of evidence, or after proper investigation ( ‘Pramaana Siddha’). Here PraSidha means “generally-known vague knowledge”. For instance, it is often thought that Hinduism is pessimistic, but this impression is incorrect. One finds that Hinduism is an optimistic religion, once one considers the evidence. The view that Hinduism is pessimistic is merely popular (Prasiddha), the view that it is optimistic is established on the basis of evidence (Pramaana Siddha). One can cite the view, as proof of its optimism, that according to it all human beings are destined to achieve salvation (that in Hinduism is called moksha, ‘liberation’.)

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.006 - ​If Hinduism admits ‘Shabda’ as a means of knowledge, then does it make Hinduism authoritarian or dogmatic?

A.006 - The danger exists but there are several reasons why it never materializes in Hinduism. One of the reasons is that what we are dealing with is a theory of knowledge. In Hinduism, all such knowledge must end in realization; thus, theory is merely a means, and realization is the end. So the theory is always subject to experimental verification and secondary to it.

A parallel from science might help explain the point. Science proceeds by testing hypotheses. In principle, one can hypothesize anything, and one could thus accuse science of random subjectivity on account of its concept of hypothesis. But, the fact that the hypothesis has to be tested prevents such a development.

Moreover, not all Hindu Schools of Philosophy always accept Sabda. Non-Hindu Schools of Philosophy with which Hindu Schools have long engaged in debate – such as Buddhism and Jainism – do not subscribe to Sabda, the way Hindu Schools do. Thus, in debating these schools, Hindus had either to rely on reason as distinguished from revelation, or provide reasons for believing in revelation, which could be debated. Moreover, what Sabda or scripture actually means has itself been a source of vigorous and often rigorous debate within Hinduism. Thus, Sabda as a means of Pramaana is perpetually prevented from turning into a form of dogma.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.007 - ​What happens to the Atma (or Soul, in Christianity) after Liberation (Moksha) when it has a Union with God? Where does it go?

A.007 - Union with God or salvation (or moksha, liberation, in Hinduism) is of two (2) kinds:

(1) Psychological, such as in Bhakti (Devotion), where bonding with God is psychological, but the soul remains distinct from God, becomes purified, and permanently lives in the company of God, in the latter’s abode called Heaven (known as ‘Vishnu-loka’ or ‘Shiva-loka’ or ‘Brahma-loka’). This is similar to the Christian concept.

(2) Ontological, such as in Advaita Vedanta, where Atman realizes its identity with Ultimate Reality. Example: When a young girl named Natalie is adopted , her new parents give her new name Stephanie. When she is older (say 18), her adopted parents tell her the pre-adoption name. Now, Stephanie realizes she is really Natalie. But was Stephanie ever really not Natalie?

In the dualistic realization, the soul goes to the company of God after death, but remains distinct from God, whereas in monistic realization, it does not go anywhere, because there is nowhere else to go. Where does Stephanie go, when she discovers that she is really Natalie? In the latter case, realization occurs during one’s life (before death), with soul becoming indistinct from the Ultimate Reality.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.008 - What is “salvation” in Hinduism?

A.008 - The word which corresponds to the English word “salvation” within Hinduism is Moksha, or Liberation. In Christianity, one is saved from sin through salvation; hence, one might wish to know what one is liberated from in Hinduism? In Hinduism, one is liberated from rebirth – that is, having to be born again in the cycle of samsaara or rebirths. More significantly, to be liberated from rebirth means to be liberated from the causes which lead to rebirth in samsaara as well as the symptoms of samsaara. Mental conflict, general dissatisfaction with life, etc., are symptoms of samsaara and these symptoms are removed with the disease. The cause of samsaara is spelled out in different nuances in various schools of philosophy (darshana-s) and sects, but its root lies in not being aligned to the Ultimate Reality or God. This lack of alignment makes us imagine that we can achieve lasting happiness in samsaara, while it can only really be achieved through moksha.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.009 - ​What is the nature of ‘liberation’ (moksha) in Hinduism in relation to the soul of the individual?

A.009 - One way of describing moksha in Hinduism would be to say that it involves the discovery of the true nature of one’s self or atman. Almost all schools of not just Hindu but also Indian thought might be willing to accept this summary statement, but they diverge in the details involved because of their different conceptions of the true of self.

The two main views, however, may be identified in terms of a vocabulary in which atman stands for the individual soul, and Brahman for the Ultimate Reality.

According to one view, the atman is identical with Brahman in its true relationship, but has lost sight of this fact through ignorance. Example: While seeing a photograph, one might sometimes not realize that one is looking at one’s own picture, till one realizes this to be the case. One form of Hinduism gives a metaphysical form to this kind of error, upon overcoming which, one realizes one’s identity with Brahman. Note that one loses one’s false identity, which one had earlier, and gains one’s true identity, lost earlier. Hence, there is no question of the self being lost, rather the false self is lost when the knowledge of the true self emerges.

According to the second major view, the atman stands for the individual soul, and Brahman stands for God. Liberation consists of discovering the true relationship of atman and Brahman, or that of Man to God. We lose sight of God in the course of our daily living and liberation consists in realizing the utter dependency of the atman on God and in forging a loving relationship with God.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.010 - ​In Christianity and Judaism, there is a great emphasis on the concept of the individual and on individualism. While the idea of “complete merging with God seems noble”, it also seems sad that one loses ones individuality. Is it not so?

A.010 - This question is best answered by a counter-question: what happens when the drop of water merges in the ocean? Does it survive the event or not?

The drop ceases to exist as a drop, but it continues to exist as the ocean.

Not all systems of Hinduism, however, insist on such a merger, and those who do, actually make a bigger claim. The school of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) would claim that the question misses a vital point – that the issue is not one of loss of identity but that of gaining one’s true identity. Suppose, in a dream, someone told one that one’s dream-self is not the true self, and in order to find out one’s real self, one must wake up. Now, if someone protested and said: “How can I give up my dream-self, will I not perish if I do so,” then what can one say? It is another version of “everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die.”

–Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.011 - ​ What is the concept of heaven and hell in Hinduism?

A.011 - Heaven: Hinduism believes in two kinds of heaven: one, written with a small ‘h’, and the other, with a capital ‘H’. In the first case, one goes to heaven (with small h) as a result of performing extra-ordinary good deeds or karma, like giving one’s life in saving other people’s lives in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. Because one’s karma is so outstanding, one goes to this wonderful place, called heaven (svarga, in Sanskrit)where one’s soul leads a blissful existence. This is the good news. The bad news is that one has to leave it when one’s stock of good karma is exhausted. One is reborn as an ordinary mortal.

The other kind of Heaven (capital H) found in Hinduism is similar to the Abrahamic one. One achieves it by devotion to and through the grace of God, and where one lives permanently in the company of God, which in the Bhakti- (Devotion-) based traditions of Hinduism, is either Vishnu or Shiva, with their Heavenly abodes called Vishnu-loka or Shiva-loka, where loka means realm. Incidentally, the concept of Brahma-loka is no longer in vogue.

Hell: Hinduism allows for a hell (with a small ‘h’), called narga in Sanskrit, where one goes as a result of performing bad karma. It might be looked upon as serving a jail-sentence, because once one has atoned for one’s bad Karma in this way, one is released from hell, to be reborn again on earth as an ordinary mortal. Thus, this concept of hell, ‘narga’, in Hinduism is more like ‘purgatory’ in Christianity. Hinduism, by and large, does not believe in ‘eternal damnation’ (of Christian Hell), with a few exceptions, so there is no Eternal Hell in Hinduism.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.012 - ​Are Veda-s “revealed” knowledge in the sense of the Abrahamic Religions?

A.012 - The Vedanta which considers the Veda to be eternal “in the sense in which a beginning-less series of like things is”, as the process of periodic creation and dissolution of the universe is also considered eternal in Hinduism. Hence, although in this way, God is also related to revelation in Hinduism, God is not the author of it, as in the Abrahamic religions, only its promulgator.

–-Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.013 - ​What is the point of having religious doctrines? Concepts of Karma, moksha and dukha?

A.013 - The doctrines or concepts are meant to convey an insight, just as theories and concepts in science are supposed to tell what is not immediately obvious, as in the well-known equation E = mc2, given by Einstein.

Let us take the concepts of karma (see FAQ.003), moksha (liberation, see FAQ.008) and dukha (suffering.)

Karma emphasizes the fact that causes take time to ripen into effects, so that the effects of our actions may not be immediately obvious, and that this is something we should keep in mind, when we act. Example: A beer bash produces a hangover not right then, but the next day. And so on.

Moksha conveys the idea that a life free from worries and uneasiness may be possible, just as we feel liberated when, say, our old debts which weigh upon us are paid off. Just as the financial worry can be removed by removing its cause, existential worry may be capable of a similar resolution.

Dukha emphasizes the fact that even when we are happy, we should not forget that circumstances could change for the worse, a possibility easily overlooked in euphoric moments.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.014 - ​With the emphasis on Karma, how could the caste system exist for so long?

A.014 - The popular conception of the caste system as unchanging is misleading. So when one says that one has had the caste system for so long, it creates the impression that things have not changed for so long. But this is not the case. Hindu civilization already had a few, or even many, centuries behind it before some form of what we call the caste system appeared. It was then called the varna system, that could be based on: (1) birth only; (2) birth plus worth; and, (3) worth only, with these strands in tension.

In the medieval times, a jati system gained in importance, and in this jati-varna system, the emphasis on birth increased. Finally, the “caste system” as such took its shape under British rule when the present caste categories were reified.

So, in a way the caste system reflects the tension between birth and worth or karma. The principle of karma is thus potentially and perpetually subversive of a ‘caste system’ based on birth.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.015 - ​What, if any, is the difference between God and the consorts?

A.015 - The situation can be as complicated as in any marriage!

Very often the consorts represent the personified aspects of the power of that God. In ‘Vaishnavism’ (in which Vishnu is the Supreme Deity), the consort (Lakshmi) remains in a subordinate position, but in ‘Shaivism’ (in which Shiva is the Supreme Deity), the consort (Paarvati) can become much more important than Shiva, specially in the form known as ‘Shaktism’(in which the Goddess is the Supreme Deity).

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.016 - ​If women and men are considered equal in India, how are they not considered equal in America, if it is the same religion they belong to?

A.016 - The answer comes in two parts. First, the assumption that the same thing must produce the same effect everywhere. Equality does not mean that an old person must be made to carry the same amount of weight as a young person. Here, equality implies proportionality and not identity. Similarly, religion seeks to obtain the best condition for all concerned and details may vary with the situation.

Just because the details may vary with the situation does not necessarily mean that they are right for the question. The situation should be examined on its merits and changed, if necessary.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.017 - ​Do all souls eventually complete the journey to God? If not, what happens to the soul?

A.017 - Hinduism as a religion, in general (with a few exceptions), is a religion of soteriological optimism; that is to say, it believes that all souls will be saved. It believes in universal salvation. In this connection, Ramakrishna said: Some get their meal in the morning, some in the afternoon and some in the evening; but none will go without food. This question is also raised by Arjuna in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita, where he is assured by Krishna that while salvation (moksha) may be delayed or get lost in a detour, it cannot be denied to one who seeks it. Thus, it is possible that temporarily a soul may lose its way or feel lost, just as one may lose one’s way in a city, but this is only a temporary state of affairs.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM

FAQ.018 - ​How many times do souls incarnate?

A.018 - Souls incarnate as many times as necessary to fulfill each soul’s material and spiritual aspirations. But if one must put a figure on it, it most usually is given as 8.4 million times (which is the number of life-forms, consisting of main species).

FAQ.019 - ​What makes the Ganges river holy?

A.019 - The answer has to be given at two levels – for the believer and the non-believer. For the non-believer, let us ask the question: Why is the library associated with studiousness? Because, most of the people found there are busy studying. Similarly, the Ganges is holy, because most of the people on its banks have traditionally being associated with practicing holy austerities. Hence, the Ganges is associated with holiness, just as a library is associated with studiousness.

This answer probably can be appreciated by both the believer and the non-believer. The believer, however, goes a step further and believes that this association is so strong that some of it can rub off on him/her, either literally or psychologically, by touching Ganges water, having it sprinkled on him/her, or bathing in it on its banks.

—Dr. Arvind Sharma, Birks Professor of Religion, McGill University, Montreal, Canada; and a Patron of DANAM