Principles vs. Commandments

Unlike every other religion, which is built on some historical character like Buddha, Christ, Mohammad, and so forth, Hinduism is based on principles. As Swami Vivekananda (or Swamiji) put it (Complete Works, v.3, 183-84), no person, man or woman, can claim to have created the Vedas. These Vedas are the embodiment of eternal principles; sages only discovered them. Who were these sages? No one knows who these sages were, their names or their fathers’ names, and so forth. These sages were the preachers of principles, and they became the illustrators of the principles they preached. “The glory of Sri Krishna,” Swamiji said, “is that he has been the best preacher of our eternal religion of principles and the best commentator on the Vedanta that ever lived in India.”

So, what Hinduism is can be summarized in a few principles. But we need to be clear first about what we mean by principles. The dictums like ‘truth alone triumphs’, etc., asserted by the Upanishads are not commandments, which need to be followed at the risk of being punished by God or some military authority if not carried out. These dictums are not like rules either, which prescribe a special course of action and tell a person what to do and what not to do. These dictums are based on principles, which are aids and instruments in judging possible courses of action.  Principles do not tell us specifically what to do but rather what to think about in deciding what to do. For example, if I say that I love people because my Master had ordained so, and not doing so would be a sin, it would be a personality-based moral code. On the other hand, if I say that I love people because love is the basis of life, it would be a principle-based moral code.

As you all know that Swami Vivekananda traveled to the USA in 1893 to spread the message of his Master, Sri Ramakrishna, on harmony among religions. He also came to this country especially to attend the first World Parliament of Religions that was held in Chicago from September 11 to September 27, 1893. His first lecture at the Parliament on the opening day of the Parliament on religious harmony won him great love and respect from the more than 5000 people in the audience. His ‘Paper on Hinduism’ presented on September 19 was remarkable in setting out the principles of Hinduism, especially its respect for, and acceptance of every other religion.

The closing words of that ‘Paper’ breathe the spirit of the universal and common humanism, not only of him and his great guru Sri Ramakrishna but also of the Indian spiritual tradition. He said: ‘… If there is ever to be a universal religion, it must be one which will have no location in place or time; which will be infinite, like the God it will preach, and whose sun will shine upon the followers of Krishna, and Christ, and on saints and sinners alike; which would not be Brahamanic [Hinduistic] or Buddhistic, Christian or Mohammedan, but the sum total of all these and still have enough space for development; which in its catholicity will embrace in its infinite arms, and find a place for, every human being, …. It will be a religion that will have no place for persecution or intolerance in its polity, which will recognize the divinity in every man and woman, and whose whole scope, whose whole force, will be centered on aiding humanity to realize its own true, divine nature.

‘Offer such a religion and all the nations will follow you. Ashoka’s Council was a council of the Buddhist faith. Akbar’s though more to the purpose, was only a parlor meeting. It was reserved for America to proclaim to all quarters of the globe that the Lord is in every religion. (Complete Works, v 1, 19)

Swamiji elucidated further his conception of universal religion in two of his subsequent lectures delivered in California in 1900. Speaking on ‘The Way to the Realization of Universal Religion’, at Pasadena, he said (Complete Works, v2, 377):

“I accept all religions that were in the past, and worship with them all; I worship God with every one of them, in whatever form they worship Him. I shall go to the mosque of the Mohammedan; I shall enter the Christian church and kneel before the crucifix; I shall enter the Buddhist temple, where I shall take refuge in Buddha and his Law.  I shall go to the forest and sit down in meditation with the Hindu, who is trying to see the Light, which enlightens the heart of everyone.”

“Not only shall I do all these, but I shall also keep open my heart open for all that may come in the future. … The Bible, the Vedas, the Koran, and all other sacred books are so many pages and an infinite number of pages remain yet to be unfolded. I would be open to all of them.”

Finally, I would like to quote two paragraphs from his address at the final session of the Parliament of Religions on September 27, 1893:

‘… But if anyone here hopes that this unity [of all religions] will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, “Brother, yours is an impossible hope.” Do I wish that the Christians would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid. … The Christian is not to become a Hindu or Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve the individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.’

‘If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this. It has proved to the world that holiness, purity, and chastity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world and that every system has produced men and women of most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart. … “ Help and not Fight,” “Assimilation and not Destruction,” “Harmony and Peace and not Dissension.”

At any rate, these principles of the Hindus are set not only to promote the general welfare of all beings but more importantly, they are also set out to help one in spiritual realization. For example, truthfulness forms one of the five principles in Patanjali’s five-point ‘Yama.’ But Yama also includes ‘non-injury’ or non-violence. There can be situations when following the ‘truthfulness’ principle might conflict with the ‘non-injury’ principle. In that case, the scriptures enjoin upon us to think and think deeply if following the letter of the law (speaking the truth principle) would not injure one or other members (beings) of society.  If the answer is yes, that is, it would indeed hurt one or other members of society; then wise men advise us to speak the truth but speak the pleasant truth, in a way, that it does not hurt or injure anyone.

A case in point would be when a butcher who was leading a cow to his slaughterhouse to slaughter her but lost her because it wandered away. Suppose, someone standing at the crossroad had seen the direction in which the cow had gone. If the butcher asked that man the direction in which the cow had gone, should the man tell the butcher the truth? If he did, then wise men would say that the sin of slaughtering the cow would be on that man’s head. Therefore, in that case, it would be OK not to tell the truth!

Among the divine or moral qualities that are mentioned in our scriptures, especially in the Bhagavad-Gita (16.2-3), are truthfulness and non-injury and the absence of pride in one’s caste or race, wealth, knowledge, etc. Let us illustrate this by an incident in the life of Swami Vivekananda when he was in the US to attend the first World Parliament of Religions that began on September 11, 1893, in Chicago. It is here that day Swami Ji began his famous address with the five words: ‘Sisters and Brothers of America,’ which evoked a thunderous and standing ovation for over two minutes from nearly seven thousand people in the audience. After the conclusion of the Parliament, the Swami was in great demand for giving lectures in different parts of the country.

Being an Oriental, his skin seemed dark to an American, and in the South, he was often mistaken for an African-American; sometimes he was insulted.  (Please remember that during that time, Afro-American people had no civil liberties in the US.) But the Swami invariably received the rude remarks and rude glances with a grand indifference of a Yogi (who the scriptures say remains indifferent to praise or blame. After all, what was race prejudice to a man who saw in every man his brother?  Once an African-American porter, who had seen the Swami being welcomed by a reception committee, came up to him and said how happy he was to see one of his own people had become a great man, and added that he would like to have the privilege of shaking hands with him. The Swami warmly clasped his hand and exclaimed, “Thank you! Thank you, brother!”

In barbershops of northern and southern states, the Swami was infrequently refused service. Several times in important cities of the south he was refused admittance to a hotel because of his dark color. But when the same hotel proprietors who had turned him away read his lectures in the papers or his name spoken with deference everywhere, they were embarrassed and would run up to him to apologize.

Long afterward, when a Western disciple, referring to these incidents, asked him in surprise why he had not told them who he was. “What!” he replied, “ rise at the expense of another? I did not come to earth for that!”  What broadmindedness, and what strength of moral character! Indeed being a true non-dualist or monist, he saw himself in all beings, and all beings in himself; indeed he identified himself with one and all.

Once again, if the Swami had told the hotel proprietors or the Afro-American porters his true identity, he would not have told a lie but the truth. But how would it have reflected on his character, a monk and a Swami who believed in the principle of the unity of all existence, while this world of name and form is Māya only? To him, the separateness between humans and non-humans, between whites and African-Americans and Orientals, between Indians and Americans was only apparent and unreal.  In reality, we are all one. In other words, although the Swami did not deny being an African-American (which he should have if he had followed the letter of the law of speaking the truth), yet by acting the way he did, he depicted and upheld the other great virtue and principle, the absence of pride, which is the hallmark of every saint. Swami Vivekananda indeed was a saint of the highest order.

One other thing we need to be clear about is the concept of God, and the relationship between God and man and woman in Hinduism, which is very different from monotheistic religions. Says Swami Vivekananda: “Two ideals of truth are in our scriptures; the one is what we call eternal, and the other is not so authoritative, yet binding under particular circumstances, times, and places. The eternal relations between souls and God are embodied in what we call the Shrutis, the Vedas. The next set of truths is what we call the Smrtis, as embodied in the words of Manu, Yajnavalkya, and other writers, and also in the Puranas, down to the Tantras.

…“Another peculiarity is that these Shrutis have many sages as the recorders of the truths in them, mostly men, even some women. Very little is known of their personalities [emphasis is added], the dates of their birth, and so forth, but their best thoughts, their best discoveries, I should say, are preserved there, embodied in the sacred literature of our country, the Vedas. In the Smrtis, on the other hand, personalities are more in evidence. Startling, gigantic, impressive, world-moving persons stand before us, as it were, for the first time, sometimes of more magnitudes even than their teachings.

“This is a peculiarity which we have to understand—that our religion preaches an Impersonal-Personal God. It preaches any amount of impersonal laws [emphasis is added] plus any amount of personality, but the very fountainhead of our religion is in the Shrutis, the Vedas, which are perfectly impersonal [emphasis is added; the persons come in the Smritis and Puranas—the great avatars, incarnations of God, prophets, and so forth. And this ought to be observed that except our religion, every other religion in the world depends upon the life or lives of some personal founder or founders. Christianity is built on the life of Jesus Christ, … “

“It naturally follows that there must be in all these religions a good deal of fight about what they call the historical evidence of the existence of these great personalities. If at any time the historical evidence of these personages in ancient times became weak, the whole building of the religion tumbles down and is broken to pieces. We escaped this fate [the fights between all those religions that have personal founders] because our religion is based not on persons but principles. … Krishna is not the authority of the Vedas [Emphasis is added], but the Vedas are the authority of Krishna himself. His glory is that he is the greatest preacher of the Vedas that ever existed. …”

“How is it possible that one person as Mohammed or Buddha or Christ, can be taken up as the one type for the whole world, nay the whole of morality, ethics, spirituality, and religion can be true only from the sanction of that one person, and one person alone? Now the Vedantic [Hindu] religion does not require any such personal authority. Its sanction is the eternal nature of man, its ethics are based upon the eternal, spiritual solidarity of man, already existing, already attained, and not to be attained. On the other hand, from the very earliest times, our sages have been feeling conscious of the fact that the vast majority of mankind requires a personality. They must have a personal God. … [So, the Hindus accept a personal-Impersonal God.]”

“The personal God is necessary, and at the same time we know that instead of and better than vain imaginations of a Personal God, … we have in this world, living and walking in our midst, living Gods, now and then. … Sri Krishna is much greater than an idea of God you or I can have. Buddha [too] is a much higher idea, … than the ideal you or I can conceive of in our minds; … our sages knew this, and, therefore, left it open to … worship such great personages, such Incarnations. Nay, the greatest of these Incarnations [Sri Krishna] goes further:  ‘Wherever an extraordinary spiritual power is manifested by external man, know that I am there; it is from Me that that manifestation comes.’ …”

“That leaves the door open for the Hindu to worship the Incarnations of all the countries in the world. The Hindu can [and does] worship any sage and any saint from any country whatsoever, and as a fact, we know that we go and worship many times in the churches of the Christians, and many times in the Mohammedan mosques, and that is good. Why not? Ours, as I have said, is the universal religion. [Emphasis is ours.] It is inclusive enough; it is broad enough to include all the ideals. …”   (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, “Sages of India”, v.3, 248 – 51).

Besides, we need to emphasize one more thing here before we go any further. And that is the word ‘Hinduism’ is not a Sanskrit word, nor does it stand for the name of the religion of the so-called Hindus. Nor is it derived from the name of the founder of this religion. For, and rather interestingly, Hinduism didn’t have any founder, as I have said before that Hinduism is not based on any personality but on principles.  Nor does Hinduism has a central organization. In fact, the very words, Hindu and Hinduism, did not originate from the land of the Hindus. In the past, this word merely referred to those who lived on the eastern side of the river Sindhu (Indus), now in Pakistan.  The ancient Iranians mispronounced the name Sindhu and called all the people living on the eastern side of that river Hindu. So this is how this word has come down to the Hindus, and during the Muslim rule in India, they took that name themselves.

The Hindus themselves would have liked to call their religion Sanatan Dharma or eternal religion, but not many took up this name. Swami Vivekananda suggested that they (Hindus) should be called either Vaidikas, followers of the Vedas, or better still, Vedantists, followers of Vedanta, which is the knowledge portion of the Vedas. Unfortunately, only a minority of intellectuals have taken up this suggestion, so the words Hindus and Hinduism have become enduring. Again, since the religion of the so-called Hindus is based on the Vedas, which contain impersonal spiritual laws discovered by ancient sages whose names are not known, and as pointed out above, our religion is based on principles, not on personalities.  Nonetheless, many holy people and sages that followed the ancient sages have verified these laws; and can be verified by people even today by anyone ready to follow the spiritual discipline necessary for its verification. As such, the principles underlying our religion are not opposed to science.

Swami Vivekananda said in one of his lectures in America that religion is a science or a study of humanity’s struggle to grasp the infinite, but it was seldom taught so in the West. He explained this scientific approach in Vedanta in that lecture, “Religion and Science”:

Experience is the only source of knowledge. In the world, religion is the only science where there is no surety because it is not taught as a science of experience [realization]. This should not be so. There is always, however, a small group of men who teach religion from experience. They are called mystics, and these mystics in every religion speak the same tongue and teach the same truth. This is the real science of religion…. Religion deals with the truths of the metaphysical world, just as chemistry and the other natural sciences deal with truths of the physical world. The book one must read to learn chemistry is the book of nature. The book from which to learn religion is your mind and heart. (The Complete Works, v.6, 81)

Another reason that Vedanta is consistent with science is that like science, its code of ethics is based on the scientific principle of cause and effect, that is, what we call the laws of nature. We give here just two verses from the Bhagavad-Gita (9.4 and 9.5) in support of our assertion.  Sri Krishna says (BG: 9.4): All this world is pervaded by Me in My un-manifested form; all beings abide in Me, but I stand apart from them; (9.5): Nor do beings exist in Me (in reality), behold My divine Yoga! Bringing forth and supporting the beings, My Self does not dwell in them.

At any rate, some of the things for which the non-Hindus consider our weakness, on the contrary, give our religion the strength. For, having no founder of the Hindu religion, has allowed this religion to incorporate into its tenets fresh experiences of saints and sages, and remove anything that is contradicted by modern discoveries. As such, Hinduism has remained ever fresh. In the words of one scholar, Hinduism is ever-aging but never old. There are, however, certain words that have become part of the vocabulary of our religion and culture. One is the word dharma. This word means something that supports, and what supports a nation is righteousness, morality, and spirituality. So the essence of everything is dharma; our dharma is spirituality, which means that behind this world of names and forms lies the divinity or God.

Another important word is darshan, which means seeing or realization. Darshan also means philosophy, but unlike western philosophy, which is more speculative, darshan in Hinduism implies thought or view that is based on experience and subject to verification by other saints. In other words, Hindus are concerned more with ‘seeing’ and realizing God or the Ultimate Reality, rather than just believing in its existence.  For, the word ‘seeing’ expresses that perfect quality of immediate conviction, which is independent of other media wherein intellect and feeling directly get the vision that is the aim of Vedanta.  Shankaracharya, perhaps the greatest philosopher of India, said that various people would express Reality in different ways, but what is the real nature of Reality depends on one’s own realization or experience.

Three Schools of Vedanta: As one might have noticed that we have used the words ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Vedanta’ interchangeably.  Interestingly, there is no agreement about the word Vedanta. For, there are indeed at least three different schools of Vedanta, which provide us with the meaning of this important word. The first School is the dualistic or dvaita school of Sri Madhavacharya.  The dualists believe that God, who is the creator of the universe and is its ruler, is eternally separate from nature, eternally separate from the human soul. God is eternal, and so are nature and all the human souls. Nature and the souls manifest and change, but God remains the same. Besides, dualists assert that this God is personal in the sense it has qualities and human attributes. He is merciful, and just, He is powerful, etc., etc. In short, He is the repository of an infinite number of blessed qualities.

The real Vedanta philosophy begins, according to Swami Vivekananda, with what is known as the qualified non-dualistic or visishta-Advaita school; the principal exponent of the qualified non-dualism is Sri Ramanujacharya. This school asserts that the effect is never different from the cause. If the universe is the effect, and God is the cause, it must be God Himself—it cannot be anything but that. Thus, say the qualified non-dualists, God is both the effect and also is the material cause of the universe.

Therefore, God is not only the creator of the universe, but He is also the material out of which the universe has been projected. A good analogy given in the Vedas is that of a spider that spins out thread out of its own body and lives in that web. So the whole universe is the body of God. In other words, the whole universe and the souls are the body of God, and God is the Soul of all the souls. As from the blazing fire, fly millions of sparks of the same nature, even so from this Infinite Being, God, these souls have come, say the non-dualists.

Now we come to the Advaita of Sri Shankaracharya, the fairest flower of philosophy and religion that any country in any age has produced, where human thought attains its highest expression. This Advaita or non-dualist Vedanta is too abstruse, too elevated, to be the religion of the masses. For, Advaita says that God is both the effect and material cause of the universe; but it goes beyond it and says that God is both the creator and also the created. He Himself is the Universe; there is but one Existence, the Infinite, and the Ever-blessed One. In other words, all that exists is the Atman, Infinite, beyond the known and beyond the knowable.

The Atman is neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’; there is no sex in the Atman, the Self. It is the names and forms, the bodies, which are matter and are superimposed upon the Self; and they make all this difference. If one takes away these differences in names and forms, the whole universe is one. They are not two, but one everywhere. You and I are one, not two (Advaita). Whom do I worship, and whom can I worship. “ I worship”, says the advaitist, myself and I salute to myself; I bow down to myself. I am the Infinite Being; I am the Self, the Self in me is the same Self in you, in everyone else, and every being and thing.

Last but not least, Hinduism is the world’s only religion that allows its tenets to reason and logical analysis, rather than just a dogma to be believed and accepted without putting it to any logical test or its verification. The very fact that during or after the discourse of any speaker or Swami for that matter, questions are raised and answered indicates that Vedanta allows its principles to be put to test and analyzed.

About the Author

Umesh Gulati, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus

Shri Umesh Gulati, based in Durham, NC, is a Vedantist, and a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda. He has regularly published articles in Vedanta Kesari from Chennai and Prabuddhabharata from Kolkata, and also in Vedanta magazine from England. Lately he also published articles in Marg magazine. After receiving Ph.D, in Economics from the University of Virginia in 1967, he joined East Carolina University in Greenville, NC the same year and retired in 1999.