The Once and Future Road: Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana

Now if we stopped our discussion of Hinduism with the code of Manu, there wouldn’t be much to explain how Hinduism survives as a “world” religion.  The Code of Manu seems bound too bound to a particular social and historical context: rules and regulations that won't transfer easily from one society to another. Further, there are too many things in it that would be hard to continue to believe once held up to a certain kind of scrutiny.  Like the polytheistic systems of the West, Hinduism should have given way to the rationalizing point of view of Greek philosophy as soon as Western influences arrive.

But Hindu polytheism was stronger and deeper than some of the other polytheistic systems.  There is a special power in art and literature, and, in the latter particularly, one can see the reasons Hinduism might persist and even (eventually) extend it's influence into the West.  Stories like those of Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana are attractive and one can see much to admire in these texts, much to support the Smith point of view that there are some essential truths that all the great world religions point to.  Note, by the way, the Smith says  *specifically* that he is going to concentrate on these kinds of ideas, ignoring the ritual practices of Hinduism that the West finds so strange.

The strengths of Hinduism are particularly apparent when one looks at the stories associated with what eventually emerge as the most-worshipped of the Hindu gods, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu..

1.  Brahma (the creator god).  In some ways, Hindu religious writings on Brahma (e.g., the Upanishads) sound very much like the Bible in their theology.  Brahma is the source of everything, including, especially, love. The ultimate goal is union with Brahma.  But this isn't really monotheism.  It is, instead, what we call pantheism: everything is God. In order to experience union in God, one must overcome the world of "maya," illusion.  This physical world is not only less important than the spiritual, it isn't even real!   The ultimate goal for the worshipper of Brahma is to attain Nirvana: "heaven," in a certain sense, but perhaps better understood as "nothingness," or, at least, as obliteration of personal identity.  Here's a long excerpt from Svetasvatara Upanishad:

Chapter VI

Some learned men speak of the inherent nature of things and some speak of time, as the
cause of the universe. They all, indeed, are deluded. It is the greatness of the
self−luminous Lord that causes the Wheel of Brahman to revolve.

He by whom the whole universe is constantly pervaded is the Knower, the Author of time.
He is sinless and omniscient, It is at His command that the work which is called earth,
water, fire, air and akasa appears as the universe. All this should be reflected upon by the

The yogi who first performs actions and then turns away from them and who practises one,
two, three, or eight disciplines, unites one principle with another principle and with the help
of virtues cultivated by the self and of subtle tendencies attains Liberation in course of time.

He who attains purity of heart by performing actions as an offering to the Lord and merges
prakriti and all its effects in Brahman, realises his true Self and thereby transcends
phenomena. In the absence of maya, both collective and individual, all his past actions are
destroyed. After the destruction of the prarabdha karma he attains final Liberation.
Svetasvatara Upanishad

The Great Lord is the beginning, the cause which unites the soul with the body; He is above
the three kinds of time and is seen to be without parts. After having worshipped that
adorable God dwelling in the heart, who is of many forms and is the true source of all
things, man attains final Liberation.

He from whom this universe proceeds is higher and other than all forms of the Tree of the
World and of time. When one knows Him who is the indweller, the bringer of good, the
destroyer of evil, the Lord of powers, the immortal support of all, one attains final Liberation.

We know Him who is the Supreme Lord of lords, the Supreme Deity of deities, the Ruler of
rulers; who is higher than the imperishable prakriti and is the self−luminous, adorable Lord
of the world.

He is without a body or organs; none like unto Him is seen, or better than He. The Vedas
speak of His exalted power, which is innate and capable of producing diverse effects and
also of His omniscience and might.

He has no master in the world, no ruler, nor is there even a sign of Him by which He can be
inferred. He is the cause, the Lord of the lord of the organs; and He is without progenitor or

May the non−dual Lord, who, by the power of His maya, covered Himself, like a spider, with
threads drawn from primal matter, merge us in Brahman!

The non−dual and resplendent Lord is hidden in all beings. All−pervading, the inmost Self
of all creatures, the impeller to actions, abiding in all things, He is the Witness, the Animator
and the Absolute, free from gunas.

There is a non−dual Ruler of the actionless many; He makes the one seed manifold.
Eternal happiness belongs to the wise, who perceive Him within themselves−and not to

He is the Eternal among the eternal, the Conscious among the conscious and though
non−dual, fulfils the desires of many. He who has known Him, the luminous Lord, the Great
Cause, to be realised by Knowledge (Samkhya) and yoga, is freed from all fetters.

The sun does not shine there, nor the moon and the stars, nor these lightnings−much less
this fire. He shining, everything shines after Him. By his light all this is lighted.
Svetasvatara Upanishad

In this universe the Swan, the Supreme Self alone exists. It is He who, as fire, abides in the
water. Only by knowing Him does one pass over death, There is no other way to reach the
Supreme Goal.

He who is the support of both the unmanifested prakriti and the jiva, who is the Lord of the
three gunas and who is the cause of bondage, existence and Liberation from samsara, is
verily the Creator of the universe, the Knower, the inmost Self of all things and their
Source−the omniscient Lord, the Author of time, the Possessor of virtues, the Knower of

He who constantly rules the world is verily the cause of bondage and Liberation.
Established in His own glory, He is the Immortal, the Embodiment of Consciousness, the
omnipresent Protector of the universe. There is no one else able to rule it.

Seeking Liberation, I take refuge in the Lord, the revealer of Self−Knowledge, who in the
beginning created Brahma and delivered the Vedas to Him.

When men shall roll up space as if it were a piece of hide, then there will be an end of
misery without one’s cultivating the Knowledge of the Lord, who is without parts, without
actions, tranquil, blameless, unattached, the supreme bridge to Immortality, an like a fire
that has consumed all its fuel.

Through the power of austerity and through the grace of the Lord, the sage Svetasvatara
realised Brahman and proclaimed the highly sacred Knowledge, supremely cherished by
the company of seers, to sannyasins of the most advanced stage.

The profound mystery in the Vedanta was taught in the previous cycle. It should not be
given to one whose passions have not been subdued, nor to one who is not a son or a

If these truths have been told to a high−minded person who feels the highest devotion for

God and for his guru as for God, then they will surely shine forth
2.   The second of the three major gods is Shiva, the destroyer god.  Why worship a destroyer-god?  Well, partly through fear: but also because  Shiva destroys things that ought to be destroyed: ignorance, superstition, and (particularly) maya. (In the lecture, I tell the story of Iswara, Paravati, Manmata and the demon Taraka).

3.  The third or our major Hindu gods is Vishnu, the preserver god. Vishnu takes on human flesh (avatars) to fight against demons.  Like Christ?  Well, not quite as one sees from the stories told about Vishnu in two of his incarnations:

 1.  Rama (told in the Ramayana, summarized in class and much better summarized at

2.  Krishna (included in the Puranas and in the Bhagavad Gita, summarized in class).

While the Bhagavad Gita is impressive, it's answer to the problem of evil and suffering is not entirely satisfactory, and it's not surprising that, within India itself, there were some important reform movements, movements designed to help understand and reduce suffering: Jainism and Buddhism, religions we will look at in our next exciting lecture.