This article is based on a lecture delivered by Swami Vivekananda at Jaffna in 1897. It is the second lecture in the series of lectures he gave from Colombo to Almora. It is titled "Vedantism". The full lecture can be found in "Lectures from Colombo to Almora" or in the "Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda" Volume III, pages 118-135.
The word `Hindu' originally meant `those who lived on the other side of the river Indus (in Sanskrit, Sindhu)'. Alternate names for the people following the religion can be `Vaidikas', followers of the Vedas, or `Vedantists', followers of the Vedanta. So, let us have a brief overview of the Vedas. The Vedas is not the utterance of persons.
The Vedas do not owe their authority to anybody, they are themselves the authority, being eternal -- the knowledge of God. They were never written, never created, they have existed throught time; just as creation is infinite and eternal, without beginning and without end, so is the knowledge of God without beginning and without end. And this knowledge is what is meant by `the Vedas' (`Vid' -- to know). The mass of knowledge called the Vedanta was discovered by personages called Rishis. The Rishi is a seer of thought. He is the discoverer of the eternal Vedas. The Rishis were spiritual discoverers.
The Vedas are divided into two principal parts, the Karma Kaanda and the Jnaana Kaanda -- the work portion and the knowledge portion, the ceremonial and the spiritual. The Karma Kaanda consists of the duties of man, duties as a student, duties as a householder, duties as a recluse, and the various duties of the various stations of life. The spiritual portion of the religion is the second part, the Jnaana Kaanda. This is called `Vedanta' -- the end of the Vedas, the gist, the goal of the Vedas. The essence of the knowledge of the Vedas was called by the name of Vedanta, which comprises the Upanisads. All sects of India which comes within the fold of Hinduism must acknowledge the Upanisads of the Vedas. They can have their own interpretations, but they must obey the authority. All the various symbols used for worship come from the Vedanta. They are all present in the Vedanta as ideas, which these symbols represent.
Next come the Smritis. These are books written by the sages. These are subordinate to the Vedanta. The Smritis have varied from time to time. As essential conditions changed, as various circumstances came to have their influence on the race, manners and customs had to be changed, and these Smritis, as mainly regulating the manners and customs of the nation, had also to be changed from time to time. But the basic principles in the Vedanta, like the dynamics of the soul, which are eternal do not change.
Then there are the Puraanas. They deal with history, cosmology, symbolic illustrations of philosophical principles, and so forth. They were written to popularise the religion of the Vedas. They give the lives of saints and kings and great men and historical events, etc. The sages made use of these to illustrate the eternal principles of religion.
There are still other books, the Tantras. These are very much like the Puranas in some respects, and in some of them there is an attempt to revive the old sacrificial ideas of the Karma Kaanda.
All these books constitute the scriptures of the Hindus. When there is such a mass of sacred books in a nation and a race which has devoted the greatest part of its energies to the thought of philosophy and spirituality, it is quite natural that there should be so many sects. These sects differ very much from each other in certain points. But there are some essential principles which are common to all sects and which constitute the core of Hinduism.
First is the question of creation. The idea of Hinduism is that this nature, Prakriti or Maayaa is infinite, without beginning. The creative energy is ever active. There never was a time when that energy did not work. The Sanskrit word for creation, properly translated, should be `projection'. There is the law of cycles. The whole of this nature exists, it becomes finer, subsides; then the whole thing is again projected forth, only again to become finer and finer, until the whole thing subsides, and again comes out. Thus it goes on backwards and forwards with a wave-like motion throughout eternity. Time, space and causation are all within this nature. To say, therefore, that it had a beginning is utter nonsense. No question can occur as to its beginning or its end. Therefore, wherever in the Hindu scriptures the words beginning and the end are used, it means the beginning and the end of one particular cycle; no more than that.
What makes this creation ? Brahman. There is no suitable word in English. He is eternal, eternally pure, eternally awake, the almighty, the all-knowing, the all-mercifull, the omnipresent, the formless, the partless. If this is so, then why is there partiality in the world ? Why is one person happy and another person unhappy ? Who makes it ? Vedanta says: We ourselves. There is a cloud shedding its rain on all fields alike. But it is the field that is well cultivated is the one that takes the best advantage of it. The fault is not on the cloud. The mercy of God is eternal and unchangable. It is we who make the difference. We reap what we have sown in several previous births.
This leads to the next concept. Life is eternal. It is not that it has sprung out of nothing. That cannot be. Each one of us is the effect of the infinite past. Each one comes to work out his own past deeds. This is the law of Karma. Each one of us is the maker of our own fate. We, and none else are responsible for what we enjoy or suffer. We are the effects, and we are the causes. We are free therefore. If I an unhappy, it is of my own making, and that shows that I can be happy if I will. The human will stands beyond all circumstance. Before it -- the strong, gigantic, infinite will and freedom in man -- all the powers, even of nature, must bow down, succumb and become its servants. This is the result of the law of Karma.
The next question is: What is the soul ? There are differences of opinion among the various sects, but there are certain points of aggreemnet. The souls are without beginning and without end, and are immortal by their very nature. Also, all powers, blessing, purity, omnipresence and omniscience are buried in each soul. In every man and in every animal, however weak or wicked, great or small, resides the same omnipresent, omniscient soul. The difference is not in the soul, but in the manifestation. This is the greatest idea that India has preached -- brotherhood of all creation. The Sanskrit word for soul is Atman. The Atman is separate from the mind. This Atman goes through birth and death, accompanied by the mind, the Sukshma Sharira (the subtle body). And when the time comes that it has attained to all knowledge and manifested itself to perfection, then this going from birth to death ceases for it. Then it is at liberty either to keep that mind, the Sukshma Sharira, or let it go for ever, and remain independant and free throughout eternity. The goal of the soul is freedom.
What is heaven ? Hinduism also has the concept of heavens. But, these are not infinite. They are just repetitions of this world, with a little more happiness and a little more enjoyment. There are many of these heavens. Persons who do good works here with the thought of reward, when they die, are born again as gods in one of these heavens, as Indra and others. These gods are the names of certain states. They also had been men, and by good work they have become gods; and those different names like Indra and so on are not the names of the same person. It is a position, and remains in it only a certain time. He then dies and is born again as man. But the human body is the highest of all. It is this earth, which is the Karma Bhumi (the place of work); it is this earth from which we attain to liberation. Even the gods have to be born as men to become liberated.
The goal is to become liberated. So long as time and space works on you, you are slaves. The idea is to be free of external and internal nature. Nature must fall at your feet, and you must be free. No more is there life; therefore no more is there death. No more enjoyment; therefore no more misery. It is bliss unspeakable, indestructible, beyond everything. And this eternal Bliss is the goal.
How did the soul come to earth ? What caused this bondage ? The answer to it in the scriptures is ignorance. Ignorance is the cause of all this bondage. It is by ignorance that we have become bound; knowledge will cure it by taking us to the other side. How will that knowledge come ? Through love, Bhakti; by the worship of God, by loving all beings as the temples of God. He resides within them. Thus, with that intense love will come knowledge, and ignorance will disappear, the bonds will break, and the soul will be free.
There are different natures of men. And so it is natural that there are different ways of worshipping God. Your way is good you,but not for me. My way is good for me, but not for you. Hinduism allows infinite variety. If a temple, or a symbol, or an image helps you to realise the Divinity within, you are welcome to do it. If certain forms and formularies help you realise the Divine, God speed you; have by all means, whatever forms, and whatever temples, and whatever ceremonies you want to bring you nearer to God. This is the gist of Hindusim.